flows in veins
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
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 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
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
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