Cancer alarm in the Punjab cotton belt (2006)

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



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