Chilling silence on pesticide poisoning

Reena Gupta | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on November 14, 2017

Toxic walk: Most workers function without protective gear - Photo: Nagara Gopal

The recent deaths in Maharashtra once again affirm that highly toxic agrochemicals are freely sold across the counter

Last month about 40 farmers died and more than 700 were hospitalised in Maharashtra due pesticide poisoning. Initial reports suggest that the deaths are due to monochrotophos. This is a highly toxic chemical that has been banned in more than 60 countries but is still allowed to be sold in our country. This is the same chemical that was responsible for the death of 23 children who consumed the toxic mid-day meal in Bihar in 2013. This chemical was completely banned in the US in 1991 because it killed huge populations of birds.

In India, the sale, dosage and usage of many of these pesticides is not very well regulated. According to official estimates, pesticide poisoning is directly responsible for the death of at least 10,000 people every year. Most of the time these deaths are of poor people; they are not reported, or are under-reported.

The organic food movement has created some awareness of residual pesticides in agricultural produce because this also affects the wealthy and informed urban population.

Rural impact

But the worst impact of pesticide exposure is on the health of rural folks— men, women and children. It affects people directly involved in spraying these pesticides. Studies in rural Bihar have shown a higher incidence of breast cancer among women residing in the Gangetic plain as compared to the control group staying in urban areas. Children are also very adversely impacted by early exposure to pesticides. There is strong evidence that links early exposure of children to toxins to various developmental problems including impaired cognitive functions.

A study in Spain has found a direct link between exposure to pesticides or Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and prevalence of Type-2 diabetes in adults. It shows that people with higher concentrations of these chemicals, are four times more likely to suffer from diabetes as compared to others.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a UN supported body) declared that organophosphate insecticides such as tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon and glyphosate are carcinogens.

Chaotic system

In theory, the pesticide industry in India is regulated and farmers are meant to be educated on usage and dosage by trained agricultural extension agents who are supposed to reach out to them. But in practice, the industry is a complex maze. The farmer is advised on sale, usage and dosage by his local shop selling agricultural equipment and clearly there is a conflict of interest there.

The two main agencies involved are The Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC) and FSSAI. The CIBRC registers pesticides for crops while the FSSAI sets the maximum residue limits of pesticides for the crops it has been registered for.

The state agriculture universities and departments then make their own recommendations for these pesticides. The agriculture extension agents would generally follow the recommendations of the state universities and boards.

What this means is that CIBRC would approve a certain compound for a certain crop; based on that, FSSAI would determine the maximum residue limit for that particular pesticide for that crop.

All this assumes a perfect world where there is perfect information flow from the CIBRC to the state universities to the extension agents to the farmers. In reality, there is a huge dearth of extension agents in most states due to budgetary constraints. Farmers usually go to the local shop and buy whatever the shopkeeper recommends. So a farmer may end up spraying cauliflower with X chemical.

If this X has not been approved for spraying on cauliflower, there may not even be an MRL set by the Government. The farmer sprays in whatever proportion the seller has told him, which may be many times over the safety limit. And all this pesticide laden food ends up on our tables.

Endosulfan effects

To give you an example — there has been an outrage against endosulfan in Kerala — this led to the Supreme Court (SC) banning the production and sale of endosulfan all over the country in 2011. In 2014, there were reports of children dying after consuming litchis. These deaths were a mystery and first the researchers thought that these could be due to some neurotoxins in the fruit.

Latest studies indicate that children may have died because they were peeling unwashed fruits with their mouth and some of the chemicals sprayed on these fruits may be responsible. Studies have indicated that endosulfan may be the chemical responsible for these deaths. This was three years after the SC had already banned the sale of endosulfan!

While there are issues about the absence of protective gear not being used and farm labourers dying as a result of this. One obvious question that begs to be asked is that why do we still allow the manufacturing of chemicals like monochrotophos mentioned above?

We allow sale of 93 chemicals that have either been banned or restricted in most of the developed world and some even in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. There are at least 18 others that have been classified as extremely hazardous or very hazardous by the WHO.

The Government-appointed Anupam Verma committee gave its recommendations in December 2015 but not much follow up has happened since then. Most developed countries review the impact of pesticides every five years but we have no such provision in our country.

If we don’t have the resources to conduct these reviews then should we not learn from the experience of other countries and international bodies like the WHO? If Governments of 60 countries consider these to be toxic and have banned production should we not do the same? Most of these countries have a higher degree of surveillance and compliance.

Areness issues

If we look at some major pesticide-related incidents in the last couple of years, it is clear that the people spraying it had very little knowledge of what they were spraying; they did not have any protective gear; none had any clue (including some of the primary care physicians) on what to do in the case of a poisoning incident.

A recent paper cites cases from Kerala where the pesticide, endosulfan, was aerially sprayed over cashew plantations; the pesticide-spraying helicopters used to be quite an attraction in the rural areas and kids used to rush out in the playgrounds with their mid-day meal plates to look at the helicopters. Thus they ended up eating their lunches laced with endosulfan; and the result was fatal.

With such low levels of awareness and lack of extension services, would it not be better if we just discontinued the manufacturing and selling of these pesticides? Not banning these could lead to a public health disaster.

The writer works on environment issues

Published on November 14, 2017
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