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Monday, August 13, 2012

Perils in Costa Rican Paradise

Most of the time Layne and I are singing the praises of Costa Rica but today I am compelled to point out a couple of negatives, since I was almost knocked down by one of them on our walk this morning and the other issue may be causing me a health problem.

Not much of a shoulder
Getting back into our routine of taking leisurely walks in our Santa Eulalia neighborhood, today we headed down the main road on the route we sometimes take toward the next town up the mountain from us. We laughingly say, as we head out, "let's go to Palmares," knowing that in fact the pueblo is some ten miles away, far too distant for a hike. The first part of our walk of necessity is along the main road to Grecia, a reasonably busy asphalt thoroughfare that runs through Santa Eulalia. The street is wide enough for two cars or trucks but with little leeway beyond that. Some parts of the roadway have sidewalk but most of the way we must stay to the edge of the road, often just a sloping concrete gutter, and watch out for traffic.

Now let's talk traffic. In Costa Rica, pedestrians do NOT have the right of way; cars do. And Ticos in general are horrendous drivers, weaving through traffic, passing on blind curves and speeding as a way of life. Reckless is the only way to describe most drivers here, sad to say. So it definitely pays to keep your eyes open when strolling along a roadway. Layne and I wisely walk facing the traffic so that some crazy driver does not overtake us from behind.

Today as we took a breather under the shade of a tree just off the road in a driveway, we looked back to see a truck and with two cars behind heading our way but on the other side of the road, of course, so no problem, right? Just as they were almost alongside us, I chose that moment to step out from the driveway and start walking again, not realizing that one of the cars had chosen that same moment to pass the truck. Suddenly I was aware of a white metal monster only a foot or two away from me, whizzing by at probably fifty miles an hour as he sped around the truck. Holy Moly! To say I was shocked is an understatement. It all happened too quickly for me to be scared but we certainly considered it still another cautionary note in staying safe on the streets of Costa Rica.

The other issue we are dealing with is pesticide use here in this beautiful country that prides itself on being "green." Last summer after living about a year in Costa Rica, I developed a very persistent case of eczema. The itchy red rash covers most of my arms and is in patches on my hands, legs and shoulders. I've seen dermatologists here and in the U.S., had a biopsy and numerous other tests done including allergy blood work, used different creams and have taken several rounds of steroids, which do cure the symptoms but not the disease. Plus, steroids have some very negative side effects with long-term use.

Giving up on Western medicine's reliance on pills, I began to do my own research and learned that, although no one knows what triggers it, eczema is the body's way of ridding itself of contaminants that are too much for the normal mode of dispersing toxins, namely, the liver, kidneys and other parts of the digestive system. When those organs become overloaded, excess pollutants will exit the body through the skin.

Toxins, eh? Well, with further research we have learned that unfortunately Costa Rica has the highest use of pesticides per hectare IN THE WORLD. That's a lot of pesticides. Take a look at the graph below (sorry it's so small) and you can see that Costa Rica stands head and shoulders above everyone else -- not a place you really want to be in this case! Not only that, but Costa Rica uses pesticides that have been banned in many other countries.

For instance, when we first encountered leafcutter ants, we were advised to buy Mirex insecticide to deal with them. After making the purchase but before opening the package, we decided to research the product and found that it had been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency way back in 1976. Without delay we returned the package to the store and just left the leafcutters to do their thing.

Our concerns are not just for our own health but also for that of farm workers here, who typically use no protective gear when spraying. 
According to one report, Costa Rican pesticide use has led to the poisoning of some 400,000 people, or about 2% of the population. Effects can include sterility, hormone dependency and liver and skin cancers. Costa Rican crops using the most dangerous chemicals are pineapple, bananas and coffee, most of which are grown on large plantations. Some people assert that smaller farms, which sell their wares at the local ferias, do not use chemical pesticides and indeed we have one vendor at the Atenas feria that claims to grow his crops organically.

We don't really know, of course, whether my eczema is related to exposure to these poisons but it is cause for concern. Our solution is buy almost exclusively organic fruits and vegetables and I've given up alcohol, coffee, dairy (other than goat's milk) and most meat in an effort to reduce the toxins I'm taking into my system.

Despite these problems, we still enjoy our life here in the land of Pura Vida. Our walk this morning reaffirmed one thing about Costa Rica that we love: the friendliness of Ticos. As we hiked by a construction site, the workers called out a loud "Hola!" to us and waved when we turned to respond. And as I snapped a shot of cars going by, the driver of a rather antique tractor stopped and smiled for my camera, happily posing for the picture. Now if the country will just go more organic, Pura Vida will mean "pure life" indeed. 

Don't forget Layne's book "Moral Turpitude" is available for only $2.99 at



  1. Hi Kat,

    I'd heard that CR was the pesticide leader, but never seen the graph. I wish I could find the original study. The site from which the graph comes is not very informative. When I see a big discrepancy like that it makes me skeptical of the study. Also note that the study is over 12 years old. But, yes, the Ticos seem to have a general disregard for safety when spraying stuff, improper clothing and no masks.

    I'm afraid going organic is not going to happen as the margins are just not there to make it economical for the farmers, especially when people are living just above poverty level.

    You shouldn't forgo coffee if you can find organic. Fortunately we are a couple Kms from an organic coffee roaster, so that's all we drink.

    Oh, 400,000 is 10% of the population. Typo?

  2. I'm sad to hear about the pesticide use (and that it could be affecting you so much). I had hopes that Costa Rica would buck the trend and be quite organic because of the emphasis on ecologically-friendly practices.

  3. @Casey - Thanks so much for your astute comments. The graph cites its source as World Resources Institute, although I was unable to locate the data there. Although somewhat dated, see this article from 2011 for info on the increasing use of pesticides here:
    Another recent story seems to confirm that:
    Re coffee, we too drink only organic local coffee but the diet I'm following from recommends no "stimulants" so I'm trying to follow that carefully.
    The 10% figure is curious and wrong, I agree. But it's not my typo. The sentence in the article I took that from was footnoted so I used the data without really analyzing it. Certainly should have... maybe it was their typo. 40,000 and 1% might be more believable, eh? Here's the footnote: Wesseling, C. HUMAN RIGHTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN PESTICIDE ISSUES: EXAMPLES OF INEQUITIES FROM CENTRAL AMERICA(Electronic Source). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc. Volume 16(5), September 2005, pp S72-S73. Looks pretty solid but you're right that 400K can't be right.
    Thanks again!

  4. Wow! Disturbing info about pesticide use in CR. My husband and I are thinking of retiring to CR but that could be a deal breaker! So surprising in a country where all we hear about is eco this and eco that. Sorry about eczema. I'm a green makeup artist and suggest to my clients that have eczema or other skin conditions to switch to all chemical-free, non-toxic personal care products. But I'll bet you already know that. Take care.

  5. And then, ... there is this eye-opener from a few years ago on 20/20 that I just found now. See the first segment on DDT. Our panic about DDT back in the 70s has cost many, many thousands of lives (mostly children) to malaria because it was no longer available to poor countries. Interesting!