A public uproar erupted in early August after a Delhi-based NGO found that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo soft drinks manufactured in India bore significant levels of pesticide. Following up on a similar report released in 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment alleged that these products, gathered from 12 Indian states, contained pesticide levels up to 50 times higher than what is allowed by official limits. Amidst the noise, it was forgotten that the deeper problem is with the water that the local bottlers use to make their colas. Therein lies the real — and alarming — story: the release and persistence of synthetic pesticides, which contaminate water, food and the entire environment.
As such, reports of pesticide residues in soft drinks should not be particularly surprising. Indeed, Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring warned of the looming crisis that would result due to the widespread use of ‘chlorinated’ pesticides. Nonetheless, after decades of alarm bells, the rampant use of these chemicals continues. Worldwide, about one million people die or face chronic illnesses every year due to pesticide poisoning.
Synthetic pesticides began to be used in India in 1948, when DDT (Dichloro diphenyl trichioro ethane) was imported for malaria control and HCH (Hexa chloro cyclo hexane) for locust control. These two now account for two-thirds of the total consumption of pesticides in the country. DDT and HCH became so popular that India began to produce them as early as 1952.
By 1958, the country’s pesticide production capacity had reached 5000 metric tonnes. In that same year the first incident of pesticide poisoning took place, claiming the lives of over 100 people in Kerala who had consumed contaminated wheat flour. Since the advent of India’s Green Revolution, the annual use of pesticides has increased dramatically — from 154 metric tonnes in 1954 to 88,000 metric tonnes in 2001. Though the Indian government did ban the use of DDT for agricultural use in 1989, up to 10,000 metric tonnes can still be used annually for health-related purposes, including spraying for disease-carrying insects.
Pesticide industries still foresee high growth potential in India, as the use of pesticides in agriculture is relatively low — just 0.54 kg per hectare, compared to 3.7 kg/ha in the US and 2.7 kg/ha in Europe. There are currently 179 pesticides registered for use in India; 30 others have been banned, while seven are restricted, including DDT. Within the space of 58 years, these chemicals have become omnipresent — from underground aquifers to the breast milk of Indian mothers.
The poisoned Ganga
Although the inadvertent consumption of pesticides has decreased in India in recent years, forthcoming generations will nonetheless be forced to continue dealing with the effects of these non-biodegradable toxins. `Organochlorines’ are a group of commonly used pesticides that are extremely stable, and thus readily accumulate in water, soil and, ultimately, the food chain.
In soil, DDT’s ‘half-life’ — the time it takes for half of the material to degrade — is about 15 years. In the human body, its half-life is about four years. In addition, these compounds can travel long distances through air and water; traces of pesticides have even been found in penguins in Antarctica. For these reasons, organochlorines are often considered the most damaging group of chemicals. They are known to cause dysfunction of the reproductive system, respiratory disease, immune suppression and cancer.
The Ganga plains are particularly prone to pesticide pollution, as the region harbours a dense human population coupled with 47 million hectares of agricultural land. Between 1993 and 2003, use of technical-grade pesticides in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was around 75,000 and 11,000 metric tonnes respectively. According to a 1995 study, the concentration of DDT in the Ganga averaged around 13 parts per billion (ppb), but also spiked up to 143 ppb. This dramatically exceeds the limit of 1 ppb proposed by the World Health Organisation for drinking water.
The accumulative potential of these pollutants can be readily seen in the waterway’s fish population. R K Sinha, a researcher at Patna University who has monitored pollution levels in the Ganga for the last two decades, has found DDT levels as high as 3700 ppb in fish upriver at Haridwar. Interestingly, pesticides are not used extensively upstream from Haridwar. During 1995-97, Anupma Kumari, also of Patna University, recorded DDT amounts in the Ganga of less than 1.7 ppb, but from 13.6 to almost 1666 ppb in Ganga fish. In addition, Kumari found high levels (53.6 ppb) of Endosulfan, another common pesticide that is significantly more toxic to mammals than is DDT.
A survey by the Bombay-based International Institute of Population Sciences found that 84 percent of households in Patna District and about 25 percent of those in Benaras use pesticides. According to the Malaria Control Office in Patna, more than 2190 metric tonnes of DDT was sprayed in Bihar between 1995-98 in an attempt to control the spread of kalazar (black fever) — one of the deadliest diseases in the state, transmitted through a type of sand fly. Bihar is also malaria-prone, and DDT spraying is the only practice used to control its vector.
“In India organochlorine pesticides were used extensively due to their low cost and broad spectrum of toxicity,” explains K P Singh, of the Lucknow-based Industrial Toxicological Research Centre. While studying the groundwater aquifer in the Gangetic plain in UP’s Unnao District, Singh recently found organochlorine concentrations as high as 2976.2 ppb in dug wells. He also found traces of a related pesticide known as Aldrin, formerly used on potatoes, at much higher levels than in other parts of India. Other studies have made similar findings in places along the Ganga, where the shallowness and high permeability of alluvial aquifers make them highly vulnerable to contamination.
When a group of scientists in Kanpur studied pesticide residue in samples of food from in and around the city, they found that Endosulfan and DDT exposures were within the acceptable range of daily intake. Other pesticides levels, however, were very high. In an average vegetarian diet, the daily intake of HCH exceeded allowable levels by 110 percent. For non-vegetarians, that number climbed to 118 percent. Exposure to Aldrin, meanwhile, exceeded acceptable amounts by 442 percent for vegetarians and 1500 for non-vegetarians.
In Lucknow, DDT and HCH residue was detected in 100 percent of the samples taken of human blood and fat tissue. In Haridwar, researchers found average HCH and DDT levels around 21 ppb in blood samples taken from male lay people. In agricultural workers who had been involved in spraying pesticides, those amounts were around three times higher than for the general population. In rural areas near Agra, 95 percent of breast milk samples were found contaminated with DDT, with HCH also present in significant amounts.
Chemical pesticides are now ubiquitous in the Indian environment. Even if all types were banned immediately, pesticides that have been released into the environment would remain active for decades to come. Immediate steps to further regulate pesticide use, as well as the forceful implementation of safe food and drinking water standards, are crucial. Every citizen needs to be able to determine the quantity of pesticides being ingested; making mandatory the disclosure of pesticide levels in various products may seem excessive to some, but it is a necessary step. The time has also come to turn away from modern ‘chemical weapons’, and deal with pests by use of traditional methods. Bio-pesticides and other biological controls are the only way to give coming generations a safe world in which to live. In the meantime. We have to wait for the life cycles of the pesticides already released to run their course.