Posts Tagged ‘pesticides’

Pesticides in Cola(2006)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Pesticides in Cola:

From controversy to debate

 

 Rajesh Kochhar

 

The question of pesticides in Indian cola drinks has attracted worldwide attention. The cola companies themselves are worried about declining sales in India while there is the larger question of the effect of the controversy on the inward flow of foreign funds. The pesticide producers on their part are concerned about the bad name the controversy brings them. The International Herald Tribune has  carried an editorial- page  essay with the tell-tale title “A dishonest campaign against U.S. colas” , whereas The Financial Times has noticed the irony that health concerns over pesticides have not  stopped  thousands of people from “guzzling” sweet sea water in Mumbai  unmindful of the “sewerage that drains nearby” .

 

There is need to transform the controversy into a debate. Some time ago medical doctors in USA advised children not to sip cola but  instead to use a drinking straw, with a view to preventing damage to the teeth enamel. Quite obviously, there is a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of the cola culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indian young men sought to acquire smartness by smoking cigarettes in the Dev Anand style (The brand did not matter). Smoking has since been deglamourized. Hopefully, cola’s turn will come soon.

 

Traditionally people have drunk drinks made out of local water. With bottled drinks, water extracted from a single location is consumed over a large territory. Since a litre of cola making requires about  four litres of water , the water table under a cola manufacturing unit sinks very low in a wide and deep  cone. Cola plants are not good for plants in their     neighbourhood. 

 

The cola question at hand is technical rather than social or ecological and therefore easier to address. Cola companies pump out ground water, treat it for bacteria and suspended particles, and then apply their secret formula to produce the glamourous concoction. Of course , the deeper the ground water is extracted from  , the purer it will be. Some cola plants presumably use surface water, which must be chemically treated. What chemistry do the cola companies perform on the water before  it is made into cola? This is a question that awaits answer from them.

 

The chemical composition of the cola drink would vary from place to place and from season to season. Pesticides enter ground water as a result of agricultural activity. Thus ground water in agriculturally advanced states like Punjab and Andhra can be expected to be richer in pesticides than say in Rajasthan. Also, during summer , when the water table dips , pesticide concentration would increase , while rains would bring  dilution.

 

The first step should be to test these hypotheses and quantify the phenomenon through reliable, multiply-validated, scientific data.  Although the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment justifiably commands high prestige, government institutions should play a role. Towards this end, a filled bottle with recorded place and date of manufacture should be procured and its contents distributed among relevant national labs and technical universities (such as IITs and IISc) , who should announce their findings publicly and simultaneously. For comparison , plain ground / surface water  taken from the same location and  at the same time should also be examined. The experiment should be repeated by taking samples at different times and from different locations. The results from different centres should tally within experimental errors.

 

Nobody has ever suggested that cola companies are deliberately lacing their colas with pesticides. But at least in some cases they must be chemically treating the water. It is  also not clear what  effect the cola-making process has on the  concentration of toxics already present in the water or in adding new ones. The circumstance that many food items available in the market  have higher toxic content than the colas is not quite relevant. Suppose cola was produced in  some pristine environment in Uttaranchal or Himachal where the water is free of all chemicals. Will the companies then  be adding toxics to bring the contamination up  to the   national average?

 

  Many people naively believe that a bottled drink is purer than tap water. They are only partially right. Cola is purer than  tap water  biologically and physically, but not  chemically. Should the chemistry of ground water as it stands be the starting point for the manufacturers of bottled drinks, or should absolute standards be prescribed?   This  is a matter for public debate and legislative action.

 

In the meantime, the cola companies should clearly distinguish between the global and the local. What chemical processes are  Indian waters subjected to  before they are ready for the global secret formula? Does the cola making process enhance the concentration? Also , what is the chemical composition of ground water? Let us have on public record hard- core authentic scientific data from all sources. This will  raise the level of debate and help   reach a reasonable decision.

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Pesticide threat (2005)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 1st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

The Tribune, Chandigarh,24 June 2005

Rajesh Kochhar

IN the recent Green Revolution decades, Punjab has created very many new folk songs celebrating the tubewell and the tractor. No sad songs have yet been written on the excessive use of pesticides of which Punjab is a major consumer primarily for its cotton and rice crops. Punjab produces 21 per cent of India’s wheat, 9 per cent of rice and 8 per cent of cotton, even though it has less than 2 per cent of India’s land. But, there is also a flip side to this accomplishment. Punjab consumes 12 per cent of India’s agro-chemicals.

Quite obviously, any substance that is harmful for insects and pests must be harmful for the human beings also. What is the amount of pesticide in human beings and animals in Punjab? How does it compare with say Uttaranchal Pradesh or Rajasthan? Does the presence of pesticide in the human body cause cancer, mental retardation and other illness? What are the safe limits for human beings? For animals? A large number of players are interested in answers to these and related questions?

There are the environmentalist groups, which are no doubt deeply concerned but at times overstate the case. Then there is the government which is the custodian of public health, but tends to get into the defensive mode at the slightest provocation. The profitable agrochemical industry would like to believe that pesticides are not as big a villain as some people are making them out to be, while the companies engaged in the production of genetically engineered crops are hoping that the controversy would help them gain credibility and business. On top of this, while the numerous television channels vie with one another to produce exclusive round-the-clock news, it is not an easy task to maintain a sense of proportion.

Conflict of interest and difference in perception are inevitable in any contemporary debate. But the debate should take place in an informed manner. When people take diametrically opposite views on any issue, the decision making becomes erratic. It is therefore essential that differences are narrowed down so that the broad direction in which the decision lies becomes obvious. It is the sacred duty of all participants in the debate to make sure that the scientific methodology is not brought into disrepute. This means that as the very first step, everybody should agree on the basic facts of the case.

What is the amount of pesticide present in human beings of different age groups? Does it vary from region to region? Is the amount higher in the cotton belt? Is it higher among the non-vegetarians? Does it vary with seasons? What is the picture in other parts of the country? Ditto for cattle and other animals.

It is a simple matter to chemically analyse the composition of blood. In view of the high stakes involved it is imperative that the credibility of the various laboratories remains unquestioned.

The first step should be the calibration of participating labs and their equipment. A single blood sample should be divided into sub-samples and given to various labs. No matter what equipment or procedure they employ, no matter who the researchers are, the results should all lie in a permissible range. Once this is ensured, rest of the task is easy.

A systematic study, involving government labs, research institutes and universities as well as NGOs, should be carried out. Within the framework of a firm, dependable data-base, different sides can try to convince one another about their point of view. Common citizens, farmers, government, and scientists all would be able to pool their resources and efforts to arrive at a solution.

Any problem that is created by human beings must necessarily be solvable by them. What is needed is determination and clear headedness.

— The author is Director , National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi

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Cancer alarm in the Punjab cotton belt (2006)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 1st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

The Tribune Chandigarh  4 October 2006

Cancer alarm in the Punjab cotton belt
Dr Rajesh Kochhar

The cotton-growing Malwa region of Punjab, comprising the southwestern districts of Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Mansa, has been reported to show a high incidence of various cancers. Since the region consumes three-fourths of all pesticides used by Punjab, cancer has been assumed to be caused by pesticides.

In the absence of any systematic study of cancer or of pesticides, such a conclusion may be premature. In view of the fact that various types of cancers are prevalent, it is likely that a combination of factors is at work. Apriori linking of cancer with pesticides to the exclusion of other causes hampers science, fudges the issues, hardens positions, shifts the focus from human beings to chemicals and detracts from the misery of cancer patients and their families.

A field study has been conducted by the PGI, Chandigarh, on behalf of the Punjab Pollution Control Board. The report submitted in February 2005 has not yet been made public, nor a scientific paper based on its findings published. Whatever is known about its contents comes from newspaper accounts and the Internet.

An important conclusion of the PGI study thus is that the Bathinda cancer rate is higher than Ropar’s by as much as 50 per cent. (It should, however, be noted that Talwandi Sabo’s consumption of pesticides (17.5 litres per acre) is more than 30 times higher than that in Anandpur Sahib (0.5 litres) which is presumably about the same as in Chamkaur Sahib.)

The PGI report records that 80 per cent of the villages in Talwandi Sabo have water pollution as compared to only 20 per cent in Chamkaur Sahib, and goes on to speculate that the “cancer cases and deaths are higher in Talwandi Sabo probably (Italics added) due to more use of pesticides, tobacco and alcohol”. As the use of the word “probably” implies, the conclusion is tentative.

A Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has found high pesticide content (0.3701mg per litre) in 20 blood samples randomly drawn from people in four different villages: Mahi Nangal, Jajjal and Balloh in Bhatinda and Dher in Ropar. However, since the sample size is very small, the CSE study cannot furnish separate figures for Bathinda and Ropar.

The PGI report’s reference to the pesticides as the probable cause of the cancers has elicited a rather sharp response from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana (PAU), as a body. PAU is reported to have “suggested to the state government to undertake an in-depth study of the causes of cancer deaths in some villages of Punjab and not to jump to the conclusion that these were caused due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides”. PAU has suggested arsenic as a probable cause.

In another independent scientific study, briefly reported in the Press, geo-physical investigation of ground water in four villages in Bathinda district shows that the levels of fluorine, nitrates, sulphates and sodium are “higher than desirable”.

Clearly, the studies so far have been haphazard and inconclusive, and not subject to the crucial professional scrutiny by other scientists. The following four-fold strategy is suggested so that the phenomenon can be understood and, more importantly, help rendered to those suffering from cancer or likely to suffer from it in the near future.

lA public campaign should be launched to correctly enter the cause of death in the government records.

lA population-based cancer registry (PBCR) should be established in the region in consultation with and with support from the Indian Council of Medical Research. It is noteworthy that at present there is no rural cancer registry in the whole of North India.

lAt the same time, but independently of the above, a systematic study of contamination of ground and surface water by agricultural (and industrial) activity as well as due to geological reasons should be undertaken.

lOnce reliable and independent data are available on cancers and on water in the Malwa belt, the question of the causes of cancers should be addressed.

The writer is a former Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. New Delhi