India's reliance on deadly pesticides makes accidental poisonings common


NEW DELHI, India -- The engagement party was in full swing, with more than 350 people in the north Indian village of Raipura gathered to toast the betrothed young couple and join in the traditional feast.

Shortly after the partygoers began eating, however, a violent illness swept through the crowd. Some vomited, many shivered uncontrollably, and then people began to die.

Before the night was over, at least 64 people were dead.

The first diagnosis made by the terrified villagers was that "evil spirits" had been opposed to the marriage and visited the feast. But doctors soon arrived and came up with a more modern -- but to the villagers perhaps no more convincing -- conclusion: The guests had all been poisoned by a strong pesticide, accidentally mixed into the wheat flour used to cook "poori" bread for the feast.

This tragedy was big news in India when it occurred last spring because so many people died in one place.

But some Indian doctors, environmentalists and even top government ministers think the deaths were but one dramatic example of the massive widespread damage being done daily in India by dangerous and frequently misused pesticides.

In its quest to become self-sufficient in food and to combat diseases like malaria, India has, perhaps more than any other nation, ignored the dangers of pesticides.

As a result, Indians are among the world's largest users of hazardous pesticides such as DDT and HCH -- long-controversial chemicals banned or severely restricted years ago in the United States and most other nations.

What's more, of the 12 hazardous pesticides recently targeted for banning by the Pesticide Action Network, an international group of environmental activists, India has restricted use of only one.

Multinational corporations are not supplying the Indians with these dangerous chemicals. It is mostly Indian companies producing them and, in the case of DDT, the government itself.

What may be the world's largest plant producing DDT is owned by the government of India, and it produces 10,000 tons per year just outside New Delhi.

"For many years, the country has believed these pesticides are vital to keeping away starvation, to advance the 'green revolution,' " explained Maneka Gandhi, India's minister for environment and forests.

"The main concern was food production and disease control -- not public health safety," she said. "Some of us believe this must change, but it . . . will take some time."

"The sad truth is that in India, problems get addressed only when they are immediate and pressing," said Dr. A. T. Dudani of the Voluntary Health Association of India, one of the few groups working to limit use of dangerous pesticides in India.

"The problem of chemicals like DDT and [HCH] is a long-term one and a largely invisible one," he said. "And so it is basically ignored."

Yet the danger to Indians from pesticides like DDT and HCH is immediate. Because hundreds of millions of Indian farmers are illiterate and untrained in the use of pesticides, accidental poisonings like the one at Raipura are commonplace. Accidental pesticide poisoning -- said by the World Health Organization to be "a serious concern" in India -- is believed to kill hundreds yearly.

But of more concern to Indian environmentalists and public health advocates is that recent tests show that Indian food contains some of the highest levels of DDT and HCH in the world.

Farmers' prolonged use of pesticides during the growing season and their practice of frequently putting DDT and HCH on their harvested wheat and vegetables to "protect them" as they go to market have created this hazard. Empty pesticide sacks are used by many villagers as suitcases when they travel.

Not surprisingly, breast milk from Indian women also has some of the highest DDT and HCH levels in the world, according to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

While neither DDT or HCH is an extremely toxic chemical, both are infamous for their longevity: It can take decades for them to break down in nature. As a result, they tend to build up -- especially in the fatty tissues of fish, other animals and ultimately humans -- with dangerous results. And with 40,000 tons of HCH and DDT used yearly in India, the buildup by now is substantial.

Although there has been no final proof, researchers believe long-term exposure to DDT and HCH can cause cancer. (A recently published study of Rohm & Haas employees at a former DDT plant in Philadelphia, for instance, found high levels of pancreatic cancer in workers.) And DDT and HCH are suspected of causing liver disease and miscarriages.

But most problematic, both chemicals are also known to wreak havoc with the environment. It was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" that first brought public attention to DDT, blaming the pesticide for decimating several species of birds. The uproar created by the book led to the banning of DDT by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.

The case against the pesticide was strong enough that within 10 years of its banning by the EPA, the use of DDT -- the cheapest andmost effective pesticide known at that time -- was banned or severely restricted in most of the developed world. And in the mid-1980s, a group of environmental activists began a concerted worldwide crusade against the use of DDT, HCH and other pesticides they called the "Dirty Dozen."

That campaign has been remarkably successful in much of the developing world, and nations from Nicaragua to Egypt have largely banned the pesticides.

But little has changed in India.

In the world's second most populated nation, DDT and HCH are used as though Rachel Carson had never written her book and none of the worldwide banning had happened.

"DDT and [HCH] are not unsafe -- I could even put DDT in my mouth now and suffer no effects," said S. C. Mathur, executive director of the Pesticide Association of India.

"There has been so much hysteria about these chemicals in America that people think they are worse than they are," he said.

"DDT is the best way to control malaria mosquitoes, and HCH is very good for cotton and other important crops. . . . Maybe in the West you can afford to change your whole pesticide industry on a whim. But here we cannot."

Mr. Mathur also contends -- as do many other Indians involved with the pesticide question -- that the extreme heat found in much of the country breaks down DDT and other long-lasting pesticides more quickly than in the temperate West.

EPA officials, however, disputed such conclusions. Twenty years after DDT was last used in the United States, they say, traces of it are found everywhere, in the tropical South as well as the colder North.

What continues to make DDT and HCH so attractive to Indian policy-makers is that they are cheap, a mere fraction of the cost of the pesticides used in the United States. Even Environment and Forests Minister Gandhi agrees that India simply does not have the money to eliminate them totally.

Although the use and misuse of particularly hazardous pesticides are extreme in India, they are hardly unique. According to a recent World Health Organization report, approximately 14,000 people die yearly from pesticide poisoning. Developing nations use but one-sixth of the world's pesticides, but account for more than two-thirds of those fatal poisonings.

And even when some information about a pesticide poisoning is found, the official response is not reassuring.

In Raipura, for instance, after learning that the villagers had been poisoned with the pesticide gammexane (a form of HCH), police charged the groom's father in the deaths.

No matter that there was nothing to suggest that the poisoning was intentional. And no matter that the arrested man lost several relatives and said his life was ruined. Somebody, it seems, had to take the blame.

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