Pesticides on plate

By Ramesh Raja
In Health
November 5, 2015
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salad-plate-01Ever wondered what is there in your meal along with the cereals and vegetables you tuck in everyday? They are the harmful chemicals – pesticides in technical language –which are present in alarmingly high doses in greens across the country. Not only veggies, the residues of these harmful chemicals, spanned non-veg items as well, hazardous for health, even to the point of being fatal if consumed over a prolonged period.

According to an agriculture ministry report, there has been an almost two-fold increase in the number of samples having pesticides above the permitted maximum residue level (MRL) in vegetables, fruits, meat and spices in the past seven years. In 2008-09, 1.4 per cent of samples tested failed the MRL test (183 out of 13,348 samples) while the figure went up to 2.6 per cent in 2014-15 (543 out of 20,618 samples). Among all, the vegetables accounted for over 56 per cent of the samples which had more MRL than the limit set by the food regulator. The major culprits were green chilli, cauliflower, cabbage, brinjal, okra, tomato, capsicum and coriander leaves. Interestingly, the annual report on Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level (2014-15) showed that the number of samples having high dose of pesticide was more in samples picked up from mandis and retail shops than the ones collected from the farm gates.

The samples collected during 2014-15 had been analysed by 25 labs. The maximum number of failed samples in most test centres was from the vegetable family. For instance, in Anand, out of 54 samples with MRL over permissible level, 42 were vegetable samples. Same was the case in 17 out of 34 samples in Kalyani, a suburb of Kolkata, and 14 out of 15 in Solan in Himachal Pradesh. The situation was equally disturbing in Delhi and NCR as well. Out of 41 samples with high presence of pesticides, 31 were vegetables. A large part of vegetables available in Delhi is grown along the Yamuna and in nearby regions. The data showed that in Gurgaon, of the 24 failed samples, 11 were vegetables. Likewise, in Mumbai, out of the 38 samples with high pesticide content, 25 were vegetables and in Port Blair, all eight failed samples were from this category. In Hyderabad, 27 of 51 such samples were vegetables and in Jaipur, it was seven out of 10 samples.

Even though the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had proposed regulations for heavy metal content in a whole range of food items including vegetables to hold traders accountable and also to persuade Indian farmers to do responsible farming and adopt good practices, non-approved pesticides like acephate, bifenthrin, acetamiprid, profenofos and hexaconazole, among others, were detected in the lab findings. While the vegetable samples contained non-approved pesticides such as acephate, bifenthrin and malathion, the residues of non-approved chemicals such as cypermethrin, profenofos, quinalphos and metalaxyl were found in fruits.Similarly, the residues of profenophos, metalaxyl and hexaconazole were found in rice and triazofos, metalaxyl, carbaryl and acephate were detected in pulses.

It may be noted that it’s not just pesticides – atoxic mix of sewage and industrial run-offs may be contaminating what is grown on the bed of the river like Yamuna. Vegetables irrigated by this contaminated water are laced with heavy metals and chemical residues. Artificial colours and waxing of produce are the other factors contributing to the disturbing trend. The quality of the fruits and vegetables – that feed most of population in cities like Delhi — may thus stand severely compromised. The issues were recently put forth by an NGO to Delhi High Court and National Green Tribunal. Even a study conducted by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in 2012 found the level of toxic metals like nickel, lead, manganese, chromium and zinc high in many water samples. At one location, lead levels were 10 times more than those anywhere else in the river and at another location near a thermal power plant, mercury concentration was about 200 times more than the USEnvironmental Protection Agency standard.

Health at risk

Vegetables contaminated with such toxins can impact health seriously, as pesticides and heavy metals have been linked to a wide range of human health hazards, ranging from short-term impacts such as headaches and nausea to chronic impacts like cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption. Acute dangers – such as nerve, skin, and eye irritation and damage, headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and systemic poisoning – can sometimes be dramatic, and even occasionally fatal. Chronic health effects may occur years after even minimal exposure to pesticides in the environment, or result from the pesticide residues which we ingest through our food and water. A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a six-fold increase in risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides.

Pesticides can cause many types of cancer in humans. Some of the most rampant forms include leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, brain, bone, breast, ovarian, prostate, testicular and liver cancers. There is also mounting evidence that exposure to pesticides disrupts the endocrine system, wreaking havoc with the complex regulation of hormones, the reproductive system, and embryonic development. Endocrine disruption can produce infertility and a variety of birth defects and developmental defects in offspring, including hormonal imbalance and incomplete sexual development, impaired brain development, behavioural disorders, and many others.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a medical condition characterized by the body’s inability to tolerate relatively low exposure to chemicals. This condition, also referred to as Environmental Illness, is triggered by exposure to certain chemicals and/or environmental pollutants. Exposure to pesticides is a common way for individuals to develop MCS, and once the condition is present, pesticides are often a potent trigger for symptoms of the condition. The variety of these symptoms can be dizzying, including everything from cardiovascular problems to depression to muscle and joint pains. Over time, individuals suffering from MCS will begin to react adversely to substances that formerly did not affect them.

Tough action required

What is bothersome is the irony that pesticides are widely used in agriculture without paying much heed to the consequences of its unregulated and indiscriminate use. This fact has been known to our policy makers for nearly five decades but there is no action on the ground. Ironically, the size of spurious pesticide market in India has gone as high as 30 per cent by volume and 25 per cent by value and it is expected to reach 40 per cent by value of pesticides sold in the country by 2019, according to a study by industry body FICCI and the Tata Strategic Management Group.

It is high time to ensure safe manufacture, storage, distribution and use of pesticides. Still awaiting the passage of Pesticide Management Bill 2008 that is pending in Parliament. The bill, which seeks to regulate manufacture, inspection, testing and distribution of pesticides alongside levying heavy penalties for violations, is meant to replace the Insecticides Act, 1968. The agriculture ministry regulates the manufacture, sale, transport, distribution, export, import and use of pesticides under the 1968 law. Besides, broadly speaking, the Central Insecticides Board advises the central and state governments on technical matters. Regulations are implemented largely by state governments. Approval for the use of pesticides and new formulations on crops is given by the Registration Committee of the Central Insecticide Board. The health and family welfare ministry monitors and regulates pesticide levels in food, and sets limits for residues in food commodities.

While some regulators say there are good structures in place for pesticide regulation, and add that their effectiveness varies from state to state because much of the enforcement is left to state governments,many manufacturers beg to differ, saying that current structures breed corruption and encourage the ‘inspector raj’.

Taking discrepancies into account, what the country needs is a well-coordinated policy, which is implemented in a transparent fashion.According to experts, the food safety officials are supposed to inspect pesticide manufacturers’ premises at least twice a year, and dealers’ premises three times annually. They are also supposed to inspect all food retail outlets to ensure safe food. But the beginning has to take place in the official apparatus to ensure zero tolerance for such activities.