AUG 7, 2001 TUE
Q: WHICH IS HEALTHIER, THE PERFECT APPPLE OR
ONE WITH A WORM? A: THE ONE WITH THE WORM
Death by pesticide in India
Evidence is mounting that toxic chemicals are contaminating the country's food chain, causing illness and deaths among animals and people
NEW DELHI - Across India, incidents indicating pesticide contamination of the food chain are mounting.
There have been cases of wild peacocks, grain-eating birds that roam open fields and scrub, dying in batches of up to a dozen at a time.
When New Delhi-based teaching consultant Saikat Das bought himself a small patch of land with some apple trees in the mountains north of New Delhi, he noticed that his neighbours sprayed their orchards with insecticide virtually every week.
Now, when Mr Das holds current affairs workshops with school children, he asks them a trick question: Which is the healthier apple to eat, the perfect one or the one with the worm?
The answer: the one with the worm.
There has been at least one incident of 12 Sarus cranes, the world's tallest flying birds which feed in fields and wetlands, dying suddenly.
One study of wild eagles in the seemingly pristine Corbett wilderness, 250 km north of New Delhi, showed that they had levels of DDT in their systems up to nine times higher than the levels which cause reproductive failure in American bald eagles.
India is one of the few countries that still uses DDT, although it is limited to urban malaria control and is not used in agricultural fields.
The birds must have picked up the pesticide by eating fish from rivers contaminated by water runoff from surrounding urban areas.
But the worst and most well-documented case by far involves Endosulfan, a pesticide sprayed on cashew plantations in Kerala.
For over 20 years, villages in Kasargod district, with some 4,500 ha of cashew plantations, have seen an unusually large number of cancer deaths, neurological disorders and physical and mental impairments.
A study by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment reported Endosulfan levels in vegetables, cows' milk, water and soil to be several times higher than maximum residue limits.
Local villagers have filed a court case to get to the bottom of the issue.
Mr Shree Padre, a farmer, journalist and activist based in the area, first noticed deformities in calves in 1981 and began writing about it.
Local doctor Y. S. Mohan Kumar also wrote in the Kerala Medical Journal in 1997 of the large number of people suffering from diseases of the central nervous system and asked for the intervention of specialists.
He received no response.
'We are always being asked to prove the link,' Mr Padre says. 'What kind of arrogance is this? We cannot prove it, let them disprove it.'
Villagers have now formed the Endosulfan Spray Action Committee, but they still feel a sense of hopelessness because they believe the government is not doing enough to investigate the issue.
The committee has accused the Plantation Corporation of Kerala of trying to sweep the issue under the carpet and of using pressure tactics to disprove links between the pesticide and the health disorders in the community.
According to anecdotes from villagers working in the cashew plantations, most of whom have not been provided any protective masks or clothing, there has also been an increase in the number of dead wildlife, especially birds, frogs and fish.
Endosulfan is an endocrine disrupter and is genotoxic, which means that it attacks the central nervous system, kidneys, skin and reproductive system.
It is banned in many countries including Singapore.
In the Philippines in the 1990s, the pharmaceutical company Hoechst tried unsuccessfully to contest a ban on Endosulfan.
As a result of the flood of bad publicity over the chemical, its use has been curbed in the cashew plantations.
However, there are now moves to replace it with other pesticides.