Lives, not just business, at stake

| | in Oped

India must take stock of the pesticides under use and ensure that they are replaced by less hazardous products and better integrated pest management approaches. It must take a leaf out of the US’ book in checking harmful chemicals

A recent report by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), United States of America, has brought to light the hazardous impact pesticides have on nature. The report released on January 18 has helped decipher and understand the effects of pesticides particularly on endangered species. The EPA study conducted on a wide-ranging parameters has found that about 97 per cent of over 1,800 animals and plants protected under the Endangered Species Act in the US are threatened by two commonly used pesticides, Malathion and Chlorpyrifos.The study also claimed that another 78 per cent could be harmed by the pesticide, Diazinon.

The findings of the study echoed the World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory in 2016, that listed Malathion and Diazinon as probable carcinogens. As usual, the US has reacted to the EPA report in record time and has already initiated measures to ban Chlorpyrifos, which is currently used on food crops in the US.

The pesticides mentioned in the EPA report are organophosphates that are widely used on crops like watermelon, wheat and corn. The EPA report has once again made it absolutely clear that it is crucial to understand the adverse impacts of pesticides prior to using them, as they not only harm wildlife and nature in general but also have an irreversible impact on human health.

India has been fighting its own battles with pesticides over the past few decades. The Endosulfan pesticide-poisoning episode spanning over two decades in Kerala, took a major toll on the environment and human health. On January 10, the Supreme Court directed the Kerala Government to pay Rs500 crore in three months as compensation to over 5,000 victims of the use of Endosulfan. The pesticide was used widely on crops like cashew, cotton, tea, paddy, fruits and others until 2011, when the Supreme Court banned its production and distribution.

The health effects of the chemical include neurotoxicity, late sexual maturity, physical deformities, poisoning, among others. Newborns have been the worst hit due to the health complications arising out of the exposure to the agrochemical.

The issue of risks associated with the use of Endosulfan came to light over decades of growing international opposition against the organochlorine pesticide. India eventually woke up to the ill effects of Endosulfan, but by then the damage was done. Widespread cases of deformed births, coupled with spiraling cases of cancer and cerebral diseases, were reported rapidly in the affected regions of Kerala where Endosulfan wreaked havoc. In addition to this, the flora and fauna of the region suffered immeasurable damage during the two decades of the use of the pesticide. In the face of growing scientific evidence against the pesticide and visible impacts on health of the people and environment, Endosulfan was banned in Kerala in 2005, with the Centre issuing a notification withholding the use of Endosulfan in the State, on the basis of reports of the National Institute of Occupational Health and various committees.

However, the ban has been ineffective as, according to recent reports, Endosulfan is still under use in Kerala. Nearly 300 large plantation holders of Palakkad are known to use Endosulfan and other pesticides extensively during the flowering season to kill pests — leaf-miners and leaf-hoppers. Acting on available information, NGOs conducted enquiries and found that Endosulfan was easily available across the district borders in Tamil Nadu, where it is not banned. Due to the State borders being manned by the police, excise officers and commercial tax personnel, but having no official from the horticulture department, the identification of Endosulfan infiltrating into Kerala has become a growing challenge. This shows the difference between responses in India and the US. Based on an EPA report, US authorities have already tightened the noose around the usage of harmful pesticides as mentioned in the report, but India, inspite of two decades of suffering, is yet to learn the right lesson or implement the ban properly.

Endosulfan is a known carcinogen, neurotoxin and genotoxin that damages the DNA. The Insecticides Act of 1968 recommends restricted use of Endosulfan. The Stockholm Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and environment from such chemical compounds, has declared Endosulfan a persistent organic pollutant and 73 countries have banned its use. India must take stock of the pesticides under use and ensure that they are replaced by less hazardous products and better integrated pest management approaches.

Urgent steps are also needed to protect the small-scale farmers who do not have protective gear and mostly use backpack sprayers that pose high risk of exposure. These measures will not only reduce the risks to users, consumers but will also benefit the environment.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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