The endosulfan pesticide debate is trending in India and globally. All eyes are on India, which is one of the few big countries, that still allows use of endosulfan.
Nationally, V.S Achyuthanandan, Kerala Chief Minister and the Left MPs have been protesting India’s stand in the Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) which began in Geneva on Tuesday.
V.S Achyutanandan and the Left M.Ps want India to support the increasingly popular global ban that is being proposed on Endosulfan by nearly 80 countries.
The mood at the Stockholm Convention has been described as tense, as a lot of battles are expected over the Endosulfan issue. Many countries in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa are supporting the ban, and the U.S, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and others have already expressed support for the ban in the plenary session.
India is a prime dissenter in the ban, and accounts for 70% of the world production of Endosulfan (Rs4500 crores annually). India cites lack of scientific evidence as one of the key reasons to opposing the ban along with the fact that the proposed alternatives to Endosulfan are not currently affordable.
Where would I encounter endosulfan?
In many un-expected encounters.
- Endosulfan is commonly sprayed on over 70 crops like vegetables, fruits, paddy, cotton, coffee, tea, cashew & timber. Studies have shown that in India, 20% of all fresh produce have pesticide residues above the maximum residue limit (MRL).
- Many water bodies have endosulfan run-off & some studies have shown high endosulfan levels in fish
- Potentially absorbed through the skin , as cotton crops are the significant users of endosulfan
- Smokers through tobacco
A brief history of Endosulfan
Endosulfan was first registered for use as a pesticide in the U.S by Hoechst (now Bayer CropScience) to control agricultural insects and mites on a wide variety of field, fruit and vegetable crops.
By 2000, after consistent reports of water contamination due to the run off from agricultural use, the EPA cancelled Bayer’s License to sell Endosulfan for use in Homes and Gardens. In 2002, after further studies by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA determined that Endosulfan residues in food and water posed high health hazards, and imposed further restrictions on agricultural use of Endosulfan.
In 2007, Endosulfan was recommended for inclusion in the Rotterdam Convention on Informed consent. This is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibility on the import and use of hazardous chemicals. Specifically, this convention requires informing purchasers of these hazardous chemicals on all known restrictions and bans, so that purchasers can make an informed decision on whether or not to buy these chemicals
How toxic is Endosulfan?
The EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) classifies Endosulfan as “Ib” – Highly hazardous, as does the E.U. The Industrial Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC) in India also classifies Endosulfan as extremely hazardous.
Endosulfan is also widely considered to be a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP). POPs are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation and have been observed to persist in the environment, to be easily transported across long distances, to accumulate in human and animal tissue, increase in virulence in food chains, and have significant impact on human health and the environment.
Due to their chemical properties, POPs are semi volatile and insoluble. They attach themselves to particulate matter like soil, water and food, and travel long distances around the world, including places that do not even use them, like Antarctica.
Because of their eerie ability to travel, even countries that have banned POPs like Endosulfan, continue to find their residues in their food and environment as they travel from places where they are used.
How does Endosulfan affect human beings?
Endosulfan is highly toxic and can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. Consuming it orally is found to be more toxic than absorbing it through the skin, and this toxicity increases in the presence of solvents like alcohol.
Endosulfan directly affects the Central Nervous System, and high levels of Endosulfan in the body lead to convulsions, epileptic seizure or death. It also comprehensively damages the internal organs like the liver, lungs and the brain.
Endosulfan is a proven endocrine disrupter, and exhibits estrogen like properties similar to DDT. Experimental evidence shows that this property leads to delay in sexual maturation in males or damage of the reproductive system. It also increases the risk of breast cancer among women, and has the ability to alter the chromosomes in mammals, leading to a risk of birth defects.
Tests on laboratory animals show high carcinogenic properties and internal organ damage.
What happens to Endosulfan in the environment?
Endosulfan is fairly immobile in soil, and highly persistent. It breaks down into further toxic compounds, some of which increase in production in tropical areas. It does not easily dissolve in water, and can bio accumulate in the bodies of fishes and other aquatic organisms.
How widespread is the Endosulfan contamination in the environment?
Endosulfan residues have been detected in air, water and soil samples in India, river water in China, lagoons in Spain, vegetation in Madagascar, Zambia and Ghana, water from the Alps, and river sediments in Malaysia.
How widespread is Endosulfan contamination in the food that we eat?
Endosulfan has been detected in food samples from across the world: Australia (beef), U.S.A and Canada (food samples), Brazil (tomatoes), Cyprus & Croatia (vegetables), India (vegetables, vegetable oil, and seeds).
A high level of Endosulfan has been detected in human breast milk in India, cord blood in Spain, and blood and urine in Croatia.
Has Endosulfan actually killed or harmed people?
Kerala was the first state in India to ban Endosulfan after a court order in 2003. This happened after the Endosulfan tragedy in Kasargode, which is widely considered one of the worst pesticide disasters to happen to a region.
Aerial spraying of cashew plantations began in 1978, and was done 3 times a year covering 15 gram panchayats in Kasargode. There were many warning signals which the decision makers ignored like the mass death of bees, fishes, foxes, birds, and congenital deformities in cows.
Endosulfan is a stomachic and quick contact poison, which destroys quickly but is non-specific, so kills everything it comes into contact with (not just the insect pests it is meant to destroy).
In 1994, independent health observations by a local health doctor, revealed a rising incidence of mental illness and congenital anomalies in Kasargode. Initially radioactive toxicity or heavy metal poisoning of the water bodies was thought to be the reason behind this. After several more complaints in areas where Endosulfan was being sprayed and the work of many national and international groups, Endosulfan spraying was linked back to the abnormal health problems at Kasargode.
The commonly noted diseases were neurobehavioral disorders, congenital malformations in girls, and reproductive tract abnormalities in males. Another report showed increased rate of cancer and gynaecological abnormalities.
A further study by the Kerala Health department reaffirmed the link between Endosulfan and this region’s health issues.
Following these reports, the Kerala State High Court banned the use and sale of Endosulfan in 2002; the State government followed suit in 2003.
Karnataka followed Kerala’s lead in February this year, with a blanket ban on Endosulfan. This followed after reports of physical deformities in areas using aerial spraying of Endosulfan, again for cashew crop in Belthangady, Puttur and Bantwal.
Endosulfan was responsible for the death of 15 people in the Western province of Matanzas, Cuba in February 1999. 63 people became ill after consuming food contaminated with Endosulfan.
In Borgou province in Benin, official records state atleast 37 deaths occurred in the 1999 – 2000 cotton season, and 36 people were seriously taken ill.
Endosulfan is just one of the many toxic compounds that are routinely sprayed on food. Several organisations and concerned political parties are battling with the Indian government to reverse its stand on Endosulfan. The good news is that under all this pressure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided to have a scientific enquiry on the effects of Endosulfan and has promised to take a more considered view on the subject.
There are no debates on this – It is time to embrace organic food. Most major cities have 3 – 4 organic outlets, so supply is no longer an issue. Even if it is not possible to consume only organic produce ALL the time, every little bit helps.
The Good News
Studies show that just as POPs bio-accumulate into the body, they can also get reversed when more and more organically grown food is consumed. Also, personally speaking, organic vegetables taste delicious and burst with flavour so it is no hardship to switch.
In Chennai alone, Srini and I have visited 3 great stores: Restore , NStores and Dhanyam , and several more exist. More than 90% of everything we consume at home is organically grown, and we have seen a significant increase in our health and well being as a result of switching to organic food.
NGOs like Thanal have been at the forefront of the Endosulfan debate in India and have worked very hard to lobby the government and build awareness on these issues with folks like us. Even if it is not possible to work actively with them, they always welcome appreciation, so drop them a mail if you can.
I have been thinking of writing this post for some time now, and many kind people have helped me on my personal quest to understand more about my food, and appreciate the value of organic food.
My thanks go to these people in no particular order:
- Ananthoo , Radhika & Restore team at http://restore.org.in/
- Kavita Mukhi of Conscious foods & Mumbai farmers market http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=345442782802
- Vandana Shiva of Navdanya – http://www.navdanya.org/
- Ramesh of NStores – http://www.nstores.in/
- Madhu of Dhanyam – http://dhanyam.in/
A special shout goes out to Thanal, who has fantastic resources on Endosulfan, which I’ve liberally used in this post. Thank you Thanal! (http://www.thanal.co.in/)