Ready for dinner. Serve yourself two chappatis and a handful of rice. Choose your pick of dals. And your favourite vegetables. Mustn’t forget the salad: tomatoes embellished with carrots and cucumber. A bowl of curd, maybe, And for a fruity dessert: a banana or an orange. Food faddists will tell you that this meal is a perfectly balanced diet. A similar lunch and a light breakfast would add up to that ideal figure of 2,200 calories daily. Just right to keep you trim and healthy.
Now gird yourself for the bad news. Along with those wholesome meals, you daily take half a milligram of two of the most widely used toxic pesticides in the country: Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT) and Benzene Hexachloride (BHC). Not to mention a dash of malathion and endosulfan. In all, that quantity is less than a pinpoint. But that’s 40 times more than what average Americans or English ingest with their food. And equals the World Health Organisation danger level for daily intake of these pesticides.
It’s hard to stomach, but true. It’s not just drinking water that you have to worry about. But practically everything you eat. The chappatis and rice, dais and vegetables, meats and fruits and even milk, now pose a new threat not just to us but to our babies too. Repeated surveys have shown that Indians are daily eating food laced with some of the highest amounts of toxic pesticide residues found in the world. In the process, they are exposed to the risk of heart disease, brain, kidney and liver damage and even cancer.
Even more frightening, studies indicate that right from the day our babies begin to suckle they are taking in pesticides deposited in breast milk. And some ready-made baby foods too are similarly contaminated. “We are not only slowly poisoning ourselves but jeopardising our future generations too,” says toxicologist Dr K.N. Mehrotra, president, Society of Pesticide Science, India in New Delhi.
The impact of such poisoning is usually insidious. But already there are several alarming examples. In Karnataka’s Shimoga and Chikmagalur districts, since 1975 over 300 people have been struck by a mysterious crippling attack of arthritis. One of them, Giriyappa, 50, a farm labourer, was among the ablest men of his village. Suddenly, he developed pain in his knees. Soon he found his muscles wasting away and within a year he had become a cripple. He now crawls around on his hands. “If it wasn’t for my sons I would be starving,” he says. In children, the disease, apart from crippling them, has inhibited their growth.
Initial studies indicated that these people, mostly farm labourers, had switched to eating crabs from nearby fields after their wages were cut. These fields were being sprayed with pesticides regularly. And in the classic food chain link (see chart), the villagers who ate the crabs are believed to have been poisoned too. Researchers now suspect that these people were genetically vulnerable to the disease and the high dose of pesticides acted as a catalyst. An in depth investigation by several institutions is now on to verify these findings.
Around the same time an epidemic of epilepsy broke out in Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh. Around 250 people suffered from sudden convulsive seizures that wracked the body. They complained of whistling noises in the ears, saw flashes of coloured lights and suffered from giddiness and headache. Reason: farmers in this area had been ignorantly using BHC to preserve their foodgrain.
An extreme case
Nagaraj, 10, is just one of the 300 people struck by a mysterious, crippling attack of arthritis in Karnataka’s Shimoga district. The disease, which wastes away the joints and muscles, was first noticed in 1975. Initial studies indicate that these people, mainly farm labourers, switched to eating crabs from nearby fields after their wages were cut. With the fields being sprayed regularly by pesticides, the crabs ingested large doses of toxins. And the people eating them were poisoned by them as well.
For the mass of Indians, however, the threat from imbibing small doses of pesticides in their daily bread is more difficult to quantify. The problem is that these pesticides poison the body slowly. Most of them are made by rearranging atoms of various elements like carbon, hydrogen and chlorine into toxic molecules. These usually attack the nervous systems of the pests, first paralysing and then killing them.
When humans swallow chemicals like DDT and BHC they are absorbed by the small intestine. These then adhere to the fatty tissues-the storehouses of energy that are distributed throughout the body and account for 10 per cent of its weight. The toxins usually pile up in the fatty tissues of such vital organs as the thyroid, heart, kidney, liver, the mammary glands and the testes. They can be transferred from the umbilical cord blood to the growing foetus. And through breast feeding to babies. Over the years, the body can store about 50 to 100 milligrams of a wide variety of these toxins.
The debilitating impact of such a heavy load of toxins came through when the King George Medical College (KGMC) and the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) in Lucknow did a series of tests on workers spraying DDT and malathion regularly. At least half of the workers developed psychological symptoms like anxiety, sleep disturbance and depression. Many complained of severe headaches. One out of five of them had impaired memory and performed simple drawing tests clumsily. Some of them even suffered from retinal damage, blurred vision and saw flashes of light and black dots in front of their eyes.
The difficulty lay in proving whether the general population, which is usually not exposed to such high doses of pesticides, would exhibit similar symptoms. As Devika Nag, head of KGMC’s Neurology Department who co-authored these studies, says: “It may take years for the buildup to act. Few doctors in general hospitals will link blurring of vision or a heart attack to signs of pesticide poisoning.”