India's reliance on deadly pesticides makes accidental poisonings common

October 14, 1990|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

NEW DELHI, India -- The engagement party was in full swing, with more than 350 people in the north Indian village of Raipura gathered to toast the betrothed young couple and join in the traditional feast.

Shortly after the partygoers began eating, however, a violent illness swept through the crowd. Some vomited, many shivered uncontrollably, and then people began to die.

Before the night was over, at least 64 people were dead.

The first diagnosis made by the terrified villagers was that "evil spirits" had been opposed to the marriage and visited the feast. But doctors soon arrived and came up with a more modern -- but to the villagers perhaps no more convincing -- conclusion: The guests had all been poisoned by a strong pesticide, accidentally mixed into the wheat flour used to cook "poori" bread for the feast.

This tragedy was big news in India when it occurred last spring because so many people died in one place.

But some Indian doctors, environmentalists and even top government ministers think the deaths were but one dramatic example of the massive widespread damage being done daily in India by dangerous and frequently misused pesticides.

In its quest to become self-sufficient in food and to combat diseases like malaria, India has, perhaps more than any other nation, ignored the dangers of pesticides.

As a result, Indians are among the world's largest users of hazardous pesticides such as DDT and HCH -- long-controversial chemicals banned or severely restricted years ago in the United States and most other nations.

What's more, of the 12 hazardous pesticides recently targeted for banning by the Pesticide Action Network, an international group of environmental activists, India has restricted use of only one.

Multinational corporations are not supplying the Indians with these dangerous chemicals. It is mostly Indian companies producing them and, in the case of DDT, the government itself.

What may be the world's largest plant producing DDT is owned by the government of India, and it produces 10,000 tons per year just outside New Delhi.

"For many years, the country has believed these pesticides are vital to keeping away starvation, to advance the 'green revolution,' " explained Maneka Gandhi, India's minister for environment and forests.

"The main concern was food production and disease control -- not public health safety," she said. "Some of us believe this must change, but it . . . will take some time."

"The sad truth is that in India, problems get addressed only when they are immediate and pressing," said Dr. A. T. Dudani of the Voluntary Health Association of India, one of the few groups working to limit use of dangerous pesticides in India.

"The problem of chemicals like DDT and [HCH] is a long-term one and a largely invisible one," he said. "And so it is basically ignored."

Yet the danger to Indians from pesticides like DDT and HCH is immediate. Because hundreds of millions of Indian farmers are illiterate and untrained in the use of pesticides, accidental poisonings like the one at Raipura are commonplace. Accidental pesticide poisoning -- said by the World Health Organization to be "a serious concern" in India -- is believed to kill hundreds yearly.

But of more concern to Indian environmentalists and public health advocates is that recent tests show that Indian food contains some of the highest levels of DDT and HCH in the world.

Farmers' prolonged use of pesticides during the growing season and their practice of frequently putting DDT and HCH on their harvested wheat and vegetables to "protect them" as they go to market have created this hazard. Empty pesticide sacks are used by many villagers as suitcases when they travel.

Not surprisingly, breast milk from Indian women also has some of the highest DDT and HCH levels in the world, according to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

While neither DDT or HCH is an extremely toxic chemical, both are infamous for their longevity: It can take decades for them to break down in nature. As a result, they tend to build up -- especially in the fatty tissues of fish, other animals and ultimately humans -- with dangerous results. And with 40,000 tons of HCH and DDT used yearly in India, the buildup by now is substantial.

Although there has been no final proof, researchers believe long-term exposure to DDT and HCH can cause cancer. (A recently published study of Rohm & Haas employees at a former DDT plant in Philadelphia, for instance, found high levels of pancreatic cancer in workers.) And DDT and HCH are suspected of causing liver disease and miscarriages.

But most problematic, both chemicals are also known to wreak havoc with the environment. It was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" that first brought public attention to DDT, blaming the pesticide for decimating several species of birds. The uproar created by the book led to the banning of DDT by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.

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