Dose of poison when pesticides enter food chain

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About 350 pesticides are used on the foods we eat, and to protect our homes and pets. They can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time.

D. Murali

The newest pest in the air is the widespread unease about pesticide residues in foods that we take. Justified, therefore, is a zero base approach to the issue of pesticide in foods.

For starters, pesticide is "an agent used to destroy pests," as

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

defines. And `pest' is "plant or animal detrimental to humans or human concerns (as agriculture or livestock production)."

Compact Oxford English Dictionary

describes the word as "a substance for destroying insects." Pesticide is "biological, physical, or chemical agent used to kill plants or animals that are harmful to people," explains

. "In practice, the term pesticide is often applied only to chemical agents."

Questions that bother us these days are: "Does my food contain pesticide residues? Could those pesticides harm my family or me? What does the government do to ensure that pesticides used on food-crops are safe?" Just the posers you will find, top on

, a page in the US Environment Protection Agency's site. Document 40-CFR-180, from Code of Federal Regulations, is about `tolerances and exemptions from tolerances for pesticide chemicals in food'.

Pesticide, according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act means: "(1) any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest; (2) any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant; and (3) any nitrogen stabiliser."

The phrase `plant regulator' is explained in the Act as "any substance or mixture of substances intended, through physiological action, for accelerating or retarding the rate of growth or rate of maturation, or for otherwise altering the behaviour of plants or the produce thereof."

Norms in India

What about the norms closer home? "

The Bureau of Indian Standards

, the highest government body to maintain product quality certification, has set a pesticide standard for bottled water but not for soft drinks," reports Ashling O'Connor on

, in a story dated August 5, headlined `Coke and Pepsi told to spill secrets or face ban'.

Centre for Science and Environment (

), which is taking on the giant cola business, brought out on August 2 a 36-page report titled `Analysis of pesticide residues in soft drinks'. It refers to the August 2003 study by the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, and the subsequent probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on `Pesticide Residues in and Safety Standards for Soft Drinks, Fruit Juices and Other Beverages'.

A February 4, 2004 article on

by Jyotsna Singh describes how the JPC report "triggered demonstrations in India against the companies and a number of bans on the sales of their drinks." Singh had written, "Parliament banned its cafeterias from serving Pepsi and Coke while the Defence ministry issued a circular ordering its clubs to stop selling the drinks." A similar ban has been slapped on these drinks now too.

The JPC had said in February 2004 that the government should set pesticide standards for soft drinks. "For the past three years, over 20-odd meetings, the Drinks and Carbonated Beverages Sectional Committee, FAD-14, of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), has been deliberating on the issue of pesticide residue standards for soft drinks," says CSE.

"In October 2005, the committee finalised the standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks. This final standard, which has not been notified yet, has set a limit of 0.1 ppb for individual pesticides and 0.5 ppb for total pesticides in soft drinks."

The abbreviation ppb stands for `parts per billion'; ppb and ppm (parts per million) are examples of expressing concentrations by mass, says

. "These units turn out to be convenient when the solute concentrations are very small (almost trace amounts)." One `ppb' is "roughly equivalent to one drop of ink in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or one second per 32 years. 1 part in 10 to the power 9," reads a snatch on


Deadly effects

CSE's report has a section on results about `organochlorine pesticides'. It says, "Minimum concentration (1.48 ppb) was detected in Pepsi Caffechino (15 times the BIS limit) manufactured in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, and the maximum concentration (14.06 ppb) was detected in Coca Cola, manufactured in Kolkata, West Bengal, which is 140 times the BIS limit for individual pesticides in soft drinks."

On the `total pesticide residues,' the report has this to say: "Average concentration of total pesticides detected in all 57 samples was 11.85, which is 24 times the BIS limit for total pesticides in soft drinks."

The report talks about `the most common pesticides detected in the soft drink samples,' viz. `Lindane, Chlorpyrifos, Heptachlor and Malathion.' These are not all, though. "There are more than 865 active ingredients registered as pesticides, which are formulated into thousands of pesticide products that are available in the marketplace. About 350 pesticides are used on the foods we eat, and to protect our homes and pets," reads the `topical and chemical fact-sheet' on

. "Pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time."

A key step in human risk assessment is dose-response', says EPA's site, because, as Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist, the `father' of modern toxicology (1493-1541), said: "The dose makes the poison." That is, "the amount of substance a person is exposed to is as important as how toxic the chemical might be."

One learns from

that studies reviewed by the Ontario College show "positive associations between solid tumours and pesticide exposure, including brain cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer and pancreatic cancer, among others."

Chronic low-level pesticide exposure is associated with a broad range of nervous system symptoms such as `headache, fatigue, dizziness, tension, anger, depression, and impaired memory, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease,' says


"Since the publication of Rachel Carson's

Silent Spring

in the 1960s, there has been concern regarding the effects of chemical pesticides on humans and on the environment," chronicles

The Columbia Encyclopedia


As a result of increased awareness of risks involved, chemical pesticides undergo exhaustive and expensive trials, before approval.

Yet, a common complaint is that government testing often uses `massive amounts of such substances on laboratory animals, creating what some critics feel is an exaggerated assessment of their danger'.

In the final analysis, what may be hard to digest in the soft-drink story is not that the sweet liquids have turned sour, but that mega business interests can continue to decry any public reaction as mere exaggeration.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 16, 2006)
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