Pesticides: Our Bodies... our lives

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

  "As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life -- a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient and capable of striking back in unexpected ways." Rachel Carson

We are being poisoned. Lethal chemicals and toxic substances are being dumped on India by nations that will not allow such poisons to harm their own people. Those who profit from such poisons have intentionally kept key information from us. As a result, mothers themselves unwittingly poisoning children at home by exposing them to dangerous chemical, while imagining this protects their health.

Advertisements on TV, for instance, seduce Indian mothers and fathers into "Hitting...Killing...and Zapping insects" by spraying lethal toxins in closed rooms where their own babies sleep. Not a word about the risk of cancer and liver, or kidney damage. Farmers are advised the use of organochlorine pesticides without warning them that they could cause long term genetic defects. Large, centrally air-conditioned offices actually pay for ‘pest control' services without heed to the effect of toxins re-circulated through air ducts. Since the 1960s, India's pesticide use has increased manifold. Not surprisingly, according to the World Health Organisation, the breast milk of thousands of Indian mothers contains up to 40 times more than the ‘safe' level of DDT. Such pesticides enter the human population primarily through consumption of adulterated fish and other food products and the World Health Organisation confirms that Indians carry the very dangerous body burden of pesticides.

Clearly we are an ignorant nation led by ignorant people. And those who would profit from our ignorance are ruthless, callous and opportunistic. When DDT was banned in the U.K. decades ago, for instance, local consumption plummeted by 95 per cent within a year. But British factory production did not fall as they exported their lethal DDT to countries such as India. Today, India continues to be one of the world's largest DDT producers. Meanwhile, the Anopheles mosquito that transmits malaria has developed a resistance to DDT. But the poison is still sold to unsuspecting farmers. The Insecticide Act and the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, suffer from the same infirmity as the Environment Protection Act... an abysmal lack of enforcement.

How shall I poison thee? Let me count the ways

Naphthalene balls in our cupboards and urinals; rat poison pellets in our kitchens; gammaxene powder on our bookshelves and insect repellents on our bodies... virtually no aspect of our lives is free from pesticide assault. Organochlorine pesticide contamination has been observed in 40 to 60 per cent of leafy vegetables tested in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Fruit and vegetable sellers in city markets sell chemically-sprayed wares that many buyers eat without washing. Consuming toxin-laced apples, grapes, strawberries and salads is tantamount to slow suicide. Milk and egg samples in major cities have also revealed pesticide residues. And farmers have found that pesticides persist in soils and continue to contaminate their produce, long after their use is discontinued. Even sub-lethal pesticide exposure can apparently lower the body's ability to ward of disease. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, headache, dehydration, muscular cramps and convulsions. But these are unfortunately often attributed to other causes by inexperienced doctors.

Make no mistake...Pesticides are steadily poisoning us. Yet, not one on-going, long-term programme exists to monitor pesticide poisoning in our bodies. Pesticide manufacturers are therefore getting away with murder. Even simple risk assessment projects are hard to come by and when a rare study does reveal an unpleasant truth, a clutch of cash-rich pesticide manufacturers can be counted on to make a bee line for the nearest politician to induce him or her to ‘kill' the report.

The way out

You can defend yourself, to some extent, against pesticide poisoning. If you wash and peel fruit and vegetables, for instance, you could get rid of as much as 95 per cent of the toxic load. In the short term, perhaps the best defence available is to actively seek and use organically grown foods. In the long term, those interested in their health have little option but to join the movement to fight the pesticide lobby. Even the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations acknowledges that our crops cannot be protected indefinitely by pesticides. But the FAO hierarchy is quite easily pressured by the all-powerful pesticide lobby so they continue to endorse pesticides. We will never be able to eliminate insects (nor should we want to). Our solutions lie in growing different kinds of foods on our farms. By multi-cropping we limit the scope for insects to proliferate as one kind of insect normally eats only one kind of food. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques rely on natural predators to keep insect populations down. Lizards, frogs, spiders, praying mantises, birds and even bats eat insects. The production of these pesticides exceeds the 1,00,000 tonne mark in India today, and astoundingly, less than 100 tonnes out of this lethal production actually reaches the targeted ‘pests'.

The rest winds up killing the predators that control pests naturally. They also kill reptiles, mammals, pollinating insects such as bees, plus fish and birds, earthworms, soil micro-flora (crucial to food production)... and us. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, an estimated 1 million to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in 20,000 reported deaths.