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"The future will depend on our wisdom not to replace one poison with another."
National Pediculosis Association®, Inc.

Where poison flows in veins

The number of cancer patients is rising alarmingly among the villagers in two districts in Punjab. Is the use of chemical fertilisers the cause? An investigation by a Centre for Science and Environment team

EVERYDAY a train leaves from Bhatinda town in Punjab for Bikaner in Rajasthan. “It’s full of cancer patients,” says Umendra Dutt, an NGO activist. Their destination is the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre. And the destiny? Death, perhaps.

A study prepared by the Punjab Pollution Control Board says of the 183,243 people — they make up 39,732 families — surveyed, the number of confirmed cancer cases is alarming. It’s 103.2 per 100,000 in Talwandi Sabo compared to 71 per 100,000 in Chamkaur Sahib. The study covered 129 villages at Talwandi Sabo in Bhatinda and Chamkaur Sahib in Roop Nagar.

Significantly, 63.8 per cent of the cropped areas in Talwandi Sabo is “cotton”, while the crop isn’t cultivated at all in Chamkaur Sahib. Cotton farmers use pesticides much more than those who cultivate wheat and rice.

The PPCB assigned several agencies — the School of Public Health, the Public Health Department, the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research — to conduct an epidemiological study of cancer cases.

The Centre for Science and Environment commissioned its Pollution Monitoring Laboratory cell to follow it up and sent a team to Mahi Nangal, Jajjal and Balloh villages in Bhatinda and Dher in Ropar. The team randomly collected blood samples of 20 people living in these four villages.

The CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory analysed 14 organochlorine and and as many organophosphorous pesticides by using Gas Chromatograph, a methodology that is followed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA.

The result portrays a gruesome picture. Fifteen variants of pesticides, some of which are cocktails of 6-13, were found in 20 blood samples and the total pesticide in average Punjab blood samples amounts to 0.370 mg a litre (mg/l).

The CSE also found that a total of 0.1424 mg/l organochlorine pesticides in average samples and a total of 0.2278 mg/l organophosphorous pesticides in average blood samples. What does this imply? Can such a collective contamination weaken their immunity and make them prone to cancer and some other ailments?

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, a US-based agency, that regularly conducts bio-monitoring programmes in the world (National Report on Human Exposure to the Environmental Chemicals) conducted a comprehensive study. Its chief aim was to determine the “body burden” of chemical fertilisers. Its second report (January 2003) contained analyses of blood and urine levels.

The CSE tested five pesticides of the ones the CDC had studied earlier. And to its horror, the CSE found that the samples found in the Punjab villages had contained much more pesticides residues. For example, lindane residues were 600 times higher than what the CDC reported. And the levels of DDE and DDT found in Punjab were 35 and 188 times higher than the US samples'.

The levels of some persistent organochlorine pesticides are spine-chilling. It’s 15-605 times higher than the CDC found in the blood samples of the farmers in the USA. Which puts a lie to the Indian industry’s persistent claim that use of pesticides in India is much less compared to the USA.

Now the question is: do we have any “acceptable levels”. A CDC report in 2003 said various agencies and organisations were engaged before the “value in blood for pesticides” was recommended. “The UK’s benchmark guidance value, for example, is 35 nanomoles a litre (approximately 1,700 nanogramme/gramme of lipid),” says the report.

The blood samples collected from the villagers in Punjab contained the same lindane, but it’s much higher (about three times). The industry in India claims that the dose is low in new organophosphorous pesticides but conceals the fact that the lower the dose the higher becomes its toxicity.

The CSE study also found low persistent OP monocrotophos in 75 per cent of the blood samples. Another OP chlorpyrifos was found in 85 per cent of the samples. In fact, OPs constituted more than 60 per cent of the total pesticide residues in the samples.

Monocrotophos, not supposed to persist in the body and ideally excreted fast, was found at 0.095 mg/l,, four times higher than the short-term exposure limit for humans set by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Several questions crop up, the most crucial being: is there a “safety threshold” limit? If yes, then how do our scientists and regulators compute it? Short-term exposures, we know, lead to acute toxicity. And if it’s persistent, one faces the prospect of chronic toxicity.

All types of pesticides have been tested to establish toxicity — a dose necessary to produce “a measurable harmful effect”, normally ascertained through tests that are done with mice, rats, rabbits and dogs. The results are then extrapolated on humans before the “safe levels” are recommended.

The “value” commonly used to determine “acute toxicity” is LD50, a lethal dose on a short-term basis; the subscript 50 indicates the dose is toxic enough to kill 50 per cent of the lab animals exposed to the chemical.

Animals receive a pesticide-laced diet from a very young age. Such experiments determine the “No Observable Adverse Effect Level” of pesticide exposure. So the “safety mark” is established at the point where the “first and minutest adverse effect surfaces”. This is called the LOAEL, or Lowest Observable Adverse Effect Level.

The LD50 and NOAEL values are then extrapolated to determine the safety values for humans, a process that is known as acute reference dose (aRfD) for acute toxicity and acceptable daily intake (ADI) for chronic toxicity.

Toxicity apart, persistence is an important parameter. It is understood that once ingested, pesticides accumulate in body fat and blood lipids. To circumvent the problem, the industry devised some new pesticides saying they degrade in the environment. But the cruel reality is that if they degrade faster they have to be far more toxic. Unfortunately, very little is known about the link between pesticide body burden and its “health impacts”. Some bio-monitoring studies that “measure” chemicals in blood, urine, breast milk, fat, hair or other tissues, reveal that large amounts of synthetic chemical residues have infiltrated our bodies. Yet, the industry continues to argue saying that there is no evidence to show that these chemicals cause harms. It even cites a “lack of authentic epidemiological studies that correlate pesticide-related diseases.

However, the toxicological impact of individual pesticides is huge even if there is nothing that prescribes any safety measures against “a chemical body burden”. In fact, several bio-monitoring researches suggest that a number of afflictions — developmental disorders, fertility problems, neurological disorders and cancer — are the results of these deadly “chemical cocktails”. The effects, though, vary from person to person. In fact, we know very little about what we call the cumulative health impacts of the chemicals that invade our body.
The RCC in Bikaner is now engaged in a study to find out why the number of cancer patients is increasing. “Pesticides could well be one of the reasons, but it’s too early to draw a conclusion,” says its director DP Punia. “Nor do we know if pesticides really cause mutations. But significantly, the cases of lymphoma and leukaemia, which are linked to mutation, are rising. But cancer comes in many forms, a group of diseases, so there can’t be just one reason,” he adds.

“In our village, we use 20 types of pesticides that cost us more than Rs two crore,” says Kewal Singh, a member of Mahi Nangal panchayat. But what about cancer? “I cannot directly link cancer to pollution. But, yes, pollution has increased and so has the disease,” says Harbans Singh, a medical practitioner in Mahi Nangal village.
Isn’t high time that the enigma was unravelled.

Barbados Advocate ©2000


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