Notes from India: We Are Poisoning Our Planet

February 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Agriculture, Blog, Ecology, Front Page, Health, India, Notes from India, Pollution, Slideshow

The chemicals we spray on crops harm far more than the pests they are designed to kill. Photo: © kelly marken - Fotolia.com

Our “Notes from…” series features thoughtful essays by people from around the globe. Frequently, the writers present us with a discussion of an environmental problem in their home nations. Through their posts, we see that virtually no place on Earth is entirely free of environmental degradation, toxins, and trash. Writing from India, Dipak Kumar Singh reminds us in today’s post that we can’t begin to find solutions until we courageously face the problems. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


How does one think or write about pollution of water and soil (not dirt, as this website makes an effort to point out) without spreading guilt in the heart of people who take their humanity seriously? It’s not easy, though you will notice I have tried. There isn’t a new fact that I bring to you — but just the fact that we have so much inertia of inaction and perhaps more so in thinking.

All of us use the three-pronged plug for electrical appliances. The third, thicker pin is for the earth. So with any amount of electricity we consume, the earth has to be a party to it. This is fine, scientifically, but it reflects our attitude towards the earth, which we symbolically call “Mother Earth” in most societies. What if, someday, our mother stops taking all the third-pin electricity?

Just now this is a hypothesis of nonsense. But a very similar thing has happened. In many instances, the earth has stopped cleansing itself. If the earth had legs, she would have run away from us by now.

Toxins in the Water

As you take a sip of that wonderful hot or cold tea, think about the tea bush in Assam, India or Kenya that is sprayed with pesticides many times during a single crop season. All that pesticide gets washed into rivers and finally into the sea. The sea will take some time to show a red flag.

The grapes you and I eat could be from a vine that was sprayed 30 times in a single year with pesticides such as Endosulfan. That makes 300 sprayings in a decade. This chemical has nowhere to go, so it just gets washed into the groundwater.

Endosulfan has a half-life of up to 20 days in water and 60 to 800 days in soil. So, think of the accumulation of this pesticide in crop-growing villages. In the Indian state of Kerala, Endosulphan has been linked to the birth of malformed children.

Cotton and Cancer

Welcome to the world’s favorite fabric: cotton. The cotton plant is sprayed with Endosulfan sometimes twice a week all over the world.

In every cotton-growing village on Earth, there is a soil/water pollution problem. I venture to make this sweeping statement to provoke you to tell me about the happy exception, so we can find how to replicate it elsewhere.

In Malwa district of Punjab, a new cancer wing has been opened to benefit patients from the districts of Barnala, Bhatinda, Ferozepur, Muktsa, Mausa, Moga, Faridkot and Sangrun — all cotton-growing districts.

Spoilt for Choice

Have we broken some sacred self-rejuvenating system of Mother Earth?

We have done it before. After World War II, we misused penicillin. In the 1960s, we misused DDT. And now what chemical shall it be?

We are spoilt for choice: Phorates, Monocrotophos, Carbofuran, Dimethoate, Carbaryl, Endosulfan — and some or all of these already have entered our food chain.

Will the next chemical we abuse be Endosulfan? It does have the distinction of being used for a very long time and in huge quantities. India alone produces over 8000 tonnes of it.

The world production of this pesticide must be at least double this quantity. This is shocking, because the first reports of Endosulfan getting into the food chain came in the late 1960s. Endosulfan is a bioaccumulator in kidney, liver, and fat tissues. It is an endocrine disruptor and enhances the effects of estrogen.

Yet, scientists in India and many other countries are still debating if Endosulfan really causes cancer. Can there be a darker black humor?

Endosulfan in the Environment

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), Endosulfan breaks down into endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan diol, both of which have “structures similar to the parent compound and are also of toxicological concern… The estimated half-lives for the combined toxic residues (endosulfan plus endosulfan sulfate) [range] from roughly 9 months to 6 years.”*

Endosulfan has relatively high potential to bioaccumulate in fish. It is also toxic to amphibians; low levels have been found to kill tadpoles. When Endosulphan is sprayed, it kills all little living things: insects, birds, and small animals. The area smells awful for weeks as the scavenging animals die, too.

Endosulfan travels long distances in the atmosphere from where it is used. It has been detected in dust from the Sahara Desert that was collected in the Caribbean after being blown across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dietary exposure to Endosulfan is 0.015 mg/kg for adults and 0.0015 mg/kg for children. For chronic dietary expsoure, the U.S. EPA reference doses are 0.006 mg/(kg·day) and 0.0006 mg/(kg·day) for adults and children, respectively. This is scary for a very popular pesticide.*

With Endosulfan exposure, humans die at a dose of 35 mg/kg body weight. At higher doses, we will die within an hour, says a WHO report of 1984. Is that an unreachable dose for a chemical with 800 days’ half life?*

As early as 1995, Endosulfan runoff from cotton fields killed tonnes of fish in Alabama rivers in the U.S.^ And it was only last year that the U.S. EPA announced that all uses of Endosulfan will soon be banned. Yet, in India, we are still debating. Why do decision-makers take 15 years to understand what others already know?

Dipak Kumar

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

*IPCS (1984) Endosulfan. Geneva, World Health Organization, International Programme on Chemical Safety (Environmental Health Criteria 40.)

^This is a very unemotional bottom line for a race of unintelligent humanity. I say this not because I hate humans, but because I value all living beings; so, the tonnes of fish that died in Alabama river in 1995 were 240,000 individual fish. We can begin by reading our own scientific papers and reports and take timely action.

This March 6, 2011 Sunday HINDUSTAN TIMES article describes a health crisis due to pesticides, including endosulfan. Photo: Courtesy Dipak Kumar Singh

Comments

7 Responses to “Notes from India: We Are Poisoning Our Planet”

  1. Roshi on March 1st, 2011 10:45 pm

    @ Dipak Kumar,
    Your write up seems to have some major factual errors which are completely misleading. Please find below the errors and appropriate clarification to them:

    “Endosulfan has a half-life of up to 20 days in water and 60 to 800 days in soil. So, think of the accumulation of this pesticide in crop-growing villages.”

    Clarification: Endosulfan has been reclassified by the WHO as ‘sulfurous ester of a chlorinated cyclic diol.’ An important feature of this molecule is its sulphur ring that makes it degradable as well as bio-degradable by bacteria. Endosulfan does not persist in the environment. Endosulfan dissipates in soil to an extent of 92–97 per cent in the first four weeks after application. It degenerates from consumption by micro-organisms in soil, it chemically breaks down under the impact of sunlight (photolysis) and also degrades on reacting with water (hydrolysis).
    FYI, Endosulfan is one the most recommended pesticide specifically for cotton crops and has been officially registered by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee in the Integrated Pest Management Program.
    Also, Endosulfan has been certified by WHO and FAO to not cause cancer, birth defects or any hormonal imbalance on contact.

    “Endosulfan is a bioaccumulator in kidney, liver, and fat tissues. It is an endocrine disruptor and enhances the effects of estrogen.”

    Clarification: A peer review by Silva and Gammon (2009) declared that Endosulfan is not a developmental or reproductive toxicant or an endocrine disruptor. Also a study done by WHO/FAO categorically mentioned that no evidence was found to prove estrogenic activity involving Endosulfan.

    “According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), Endosulfan breaks down into endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan diol, both of which have structures similar to the parent compound and are also of toxicological concern… The estimated half-lives for the combined toxic residues (endosulfan plus endosulfan sulfate) [range] from roughly 9 months to 6 years.”

    Clarification: Results from field dissipation studies carried out in Europe and North America resulted in soil half-lives of 26 to 169 days (US EPA 2002, Baedelt et al. 1992). There is no soil accumulation of endosulfan, even after excessively high application rates over many years. Long-term field accumulation studies with yearly application rates of 5.5 to 12.5 kg endosulfan per ha over a period of 5 to 7 years in different regions, have also shown that endosulfan dissipates within 6 months after the last application to a total residue level in the top soil (0-10 cm) of less than 0.1 ppm (Tiirmaa and Dorn 1988).

    • Endosulfan has relatively high potential to bioaccumulate in fish. It is also toxic to amphibians; low levels have been found to kill tadpoles. When Endosulphan is sprayed, it kills all little living things: insects, birds, and small animals. The area smells awful for weeks as the scavenging animals die, too.”

    Clarification: Concerning endosulfan bioaccumulation in fish, there are several studies of varying quality available in the peer reviewed literature. Most of data published has been taken on face value. once these data were screened for quality based only a few studies remained that provide the most reliable estimates of bioconcentration in fish and they concluded negligible residues. If endosulfan was bioaccumulating in mammals, no steady-state would have been reached and residue levels would have been eliminated much more slowly.

    • Endosulfan travels long distances in the atmosphere from where it is used. It has been detected in dust from the Sahara Desert that was collected in the Caribbean after being blown across the Atlantic Ocean.

    Clarification: New data indicate that there is no spatial or temporal increase of endosulfan residues in the Arctic Environment. The reports do not point to a potential increase of exposure. There are no residue findings, which show repeated contamination of the annual fresh snow layer in the Arctic over several years, or an endosulfan concentration increase in the soil of higher cold altitudes. It is very uncertain that long-range transport of endosulfan occurs at relevant levels and to a significant extent

    And of course lot more to be corrected. I would suggest you to look into the right sources before coming up with such terrifying statements.

  2. Elena on March 6th, 2011 9:36 am

    Oh my God! I did not knew about the cotton and my mom is fighting cancer. Very useful article.

  3. Julia Wasson on March 12th, 2011 8:24 pm

    Roshi, Blue Planet Green Living received the following information from writer Dipak Kumar Singh in reply to your comment. Please also see the HINDUSTAN TIMES front page article now pasted at the bottom of Dipak Kumar Singh’s article. The story specifically mentions Endosulfan as a hazardous chemical that is causing illness in humans. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher

    This is in response to comments made by Roshi on March 1st, 2011.

    Reclassification of an old pesticide is interesting development; it means that some people are still interested in Endosulfan. Is it because new facts have emerged which we did not know earlier? I do not know if Endosulfan has now become more useful and less harmful — we all would want to know.

    I do not claim to be a scientist or a scholar, but to me Wikipedia is good reference, WHO papers and other scientific publications are good too. I believe these are not sponsored by business houses or business men.
    Some references are given below- all are available in the public domain. I take the liberty to add the following lines — it comes at the end of the references- list).
    “The regulatory status of endosulfan differs from one country to another, but a lot of countries have found it relevant to put in place specific regulation on endosulfan use, by banning, restricting, or severely restricting it. Endosulfan has been banned in at least the following countries: Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden (29), Belize and Singapore (30), and the Brazilian state of Rondonia (31). Colombia (32) and Indonesia (33) were preparing for a ban on endosulfan. Its use is not allowed either in rice fields in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea and Thailand. Use is restricted or severely restricted in: Canada, Finland, Great Britain, Kuwait, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka and Thailand (34) and in Madagascar (35). Campaigns have been going on world-wide for several years to ban endosulfan completely (36,37).” (USA would be an addition to the list. D.K.S.)
    Why do we have anything against a pesticide which protects our crop from pest ?
    Some of the References that got me interested in Endosulfan follow:

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

    “Endosulfan
    IUPAC name
    6,7,8,9,10,10-hexachloro-1,5,5a,6,9,9a-hexahydro-
    6,9-methano-2,4,3-benzodioxathiepine-3-oxide
    Other names
    Benzoepin, Endocel, Parrysulfan, Phaser, Thiodan, Thionex…
    Properties Molecular formula C9H6Cl6O3S Molar mass 406.95 Density 1.745 g/cm³
    Melting point 70–100 °C
    Solubility in water 0.33 mg/L Hazards EU classification Yes (T, Xi, N) R-phrases R24/25 R36 R50/53 NFPA 704
    R24/25 R36 R50/53…
    “Endosulfan is an organochlorine compound that is used as an insecticide and acaricide. This colourless solid has emerged as a highly controversial agrichemical[1] due to its acute toxicity, potential for bioaccumulation, and role as an endocrine disruptor. Banned in more than 62 countries, including the European Union, several Asian and West African nations,[2] and soon in the United States,[3][4] it is still used extensively in many other countries including India, Brazil, and Australia. It is produced by Bayer CropScience, Makhteshim Agan, and Government-of-India–owned Hindustan Insecticides Limited among others. Because of its threats to the environment, a global ban on the use and manufacture of endosulfan is being considered under the Stockholm Convention.[5]
    “Endosulfan breaks down into endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan diol, both of which, according to the EPA, have “structures similar to the parent compound and are also of toxicological concern… The estimated half-lives for the combined toxic residues (endosulfan plus endosulfan sulfate) [range] from roughly 9 months to 6 years.” The EPA concluded that, “[b]ased on environmental fate laboratory studies, terrestrial field dissipation studies, available models, monitoring studies, and published literature, it can be concluded that endosulfan is a very persistent chemical which may stay in the environment for lengthy periods of time, particularly in acid media.” The EPA also concluded that “[e]ndosulfan has relatively high potential to bioaccumulate in fish.”[9] It is also toxic to amphibians: low levels have been found to kill tadpoles.[41]”

    WHO Pesticide Residues Series, No. 1
    1971 EVALUATIONS OF SOME PESTICIDE RESIDUES IN FOOD
    THE MONOGRAPHS
    “The evaluations contained in these monographs were prepared by the Joint Meeting of the FAO Working Party of Experts on Pesticide Residues and the WHO Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues that met in Geneva from 22 to 29 November 1971.1

    World Health Organization
    Geneva
    1972
    1 Pesticide Residues in Food: Report of the 1971 Joint Meeting of the FAO Working Party of Experts on Pesticide Residues and the WHO Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues, Wld Hlth Org. techn. Rep. Ser., No. 502; FAO Agricultural Studies, 1972, No. 88.

    These monographs are also issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, as document AGP-1971/M/9/1.

    FAO and WHO 1972:
    ENDOSULFAN
    “Since the previous evaluations (FAO/WHO, 1968, 1969), additional data has become available and is summarized and discussed in the following monograph addendum:

    RESIDUES IN FOOD AND THEIR EVALUATION
    Residues resulting from supervised trials

    Recently-acquired data on residues of endosulfans A and B and endosulfan sulfate (TS) in lettuce, cauliflower, and cabbage are summarized in Table I. Endosulfan sulfate comprised 25-30% of the total residue on lettuce and 25-50% of the total residue on cabbage. Endosulfan B appears somewhat more persistent than A, sometimes accounting for more than 50% of the total residue. Although the data were somewhat erratic there was no indication of a build-up of endosulfan sulfate in excess of the temporary tolerance of 2.0 ppm (total residues) previously established by FAO/WHO (1969).

    A summary of the results of field trials conducted by Hoechst at two tea growing regions in India to determine residues in green tea, dry manufactured tea, and aqueous tea infusions is given in Table III (American Hoechst Corp., documents used in Food Additive Petition, Thiodan on Tea, 12 August, 1971). Application rates of 0.5, 1, and 2 times the recommended rate of 2.5 litres of 35% E.C./hectare were used, and residues of endosulfans A, B, and sulfate were determined separately. The results show that total residues in dry tea leaves are lower in samples grown in low elevations. The residues are only slightly extracted from tea by hot water, yielding infusions containing only a few micrograms per litre.

    Endosulfan was applied to rice growing in the Philippines at 20 kg/ha of 5% granular (three applications) and 2 1/ha of 35% EC (three applications and four applications). Results of analysis for endosulfans A and B and endosulfan sulfate in rice (peeled and unpeeled), rice hulls, and rice straw harvested at two appropriate intervals are presented in Table II (Hoechst, 1971). FATE OF RESIDUES In animals Two dairy cows were fed endosulfan at 0.5 mg/kg body-weight daily (12.5 mg/kg was attempted but resulted in the death of one cow), but after two weeks the concentration in the milk was minimal and the dose was increased to 1 mg/kg for two weeks more. The milk collected from these two cows was manufactured into the dairy products, pasteurized milk, cream, butter, spray-dried whole milk, condensed whole milk, Cheddar cheese, and sterilized condensed milk and the by-products, skim milk, buttermilk, and cheese whey. Analyses of the products indicated only a very small concentration of endosulfan A.

    Endosulfan
    The half-life of endosulfan in water and in most fruits and vegetables is reported to be three to seven days (22). However, half-life in sandy loam is reported to be between 60 and 800 days (23). The degradation rate is dependent on the pH of the soil: alkaline conditions favour degradation, whereas acidic conditions slow down the process (24,25). Adding endosulfan to soil appears to reduce the rate of degradation of other organochlorine pesticides already present in the soil, either because endosulfan reduces the populations of micro-organisms, or because of reduction of the activity of micro-organisms responsible for degradation of the other organochlorines(26). A big drawback with endosulfan is that the breakdown product, endosulfan sulphate, is more persistent than the parent compound, accounting for 90% of the residue in 11 weeks. Sulphate formation increases as temperatures increase (27). In Australia significant amounts of endosulfan sulphate were observed in soil prior to spraying as residue from applications in previous seasons (28).

    The regulatory status of endosulfan differs from one country to another, but a lot of countries have found it relevant to put in place specific regulation on endosulfan use, by banning, restricting, or severely restricting it. Endosulfan has been banned in at least the following countries: Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden (29), Belize and Singapore (30), and the Brazilian state of Rondonia (31). Colombia (32) and Indonesia (33) were preparing for a ban on endosulfan. Its use is not allowed either in rice fields in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea and Thailand. Use is restricted or severely restricted in: Canada, Finland, Great Britain, Kuwait, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka and Thailand (34) and in Madagascar (35). Campaigns have been going on world-wide for several years to ban endosulfan completely (36,37).

    References
    1. Ghadiri, H., C.W. Rose and D.W. Connel, Controlled environment study of the degradation of endosulfan in soils. In G.A. Constable and N.W. Forrester (eds.), Challenging the future. Proceedings of the World Cotton Research Conference – 1, Brisbane, Australia, February 14-17, 1994, CSIRO, Melbourne, Australia, 1995, pp. 583-588.
    2. ATSDR, Endosulfan datasheet. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, US Department for Health and Human Services, USA, September 1995, 3pp.
    3. PANAP, Endosulfan datasheet. Pesticide Action Network – Asia and the Pacific, Penang, Malaysia. June 1996, 6pp.
    4. EXTOXNET, Endosulfan datasheet. Extoxnet, Ithaca N.Y., USA. October 1992, 4pp.
    5. PANAP 1996, op cit.
    6. ATSDR, 1995, op cit.
    7. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    8. ATSDR, 1995, op cit.
    9. EXTOXNET, 1992, op cit.
    10. EXTOXNET, 1992, op cit.
    11. ANAP, 1996, op cit
    12. ATSDR, 1995, op cit.
    13. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    14. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    15. EXTOXNET, 1992, op cit.
    16. Kern, M.J. and Geiss, Investigations on the suitability of Thiodan (for IPM on cotton). Paper presented at the World Cotton Research Conference – 2, Athens, Greece, September 6-12, 1998, Hoechst Schering AgrEvo GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany.
    17. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    18. Endosulfan is often compared favourably to organochlorines like DDT, aldrin and dieldrin, as it is less persistent in the environment. It should be noted that such a comparison is likely to seriously underestimate its absolute environmental effects.
    19. ATSDR, 1995, op cit.
    20. Ghadiri, 1995, op cit.
    21. Kimber, S.W.L., S.K. Southan, N. Ahmad and I.R. Kennedy, The fate of endosulfan sprayed on cotton. In G.A.Constable and N.W. Forrester (eds.), Challenging the future. op cit pp. 589-594. 22. Ghadiri, 1995, op cit.
    23. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    24. EXTOXNET, 1992, op cit.
    25. Ghadiri, 1995, op cit.
    26. Ghadiri, 1995, op cit.
    27. EXTOXNET, 1992, op cit.
    28. Kimber et al, 1995, op cit.
    29. Muilerman, H., Society for Nature and Environment, The Netherlands, personal communication, 30 November 1999.
    30. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    31. De Oliveira, J.N.A. and A. De Oliveira Toniato, The alarming use of agrochemicals in Rondonia, Brazil. PN 27, March 1995, pp. 4-7.
    32. PAN-Africa, Bannir l’endosulfan en Colombie? In: Pesticides and Alternatives, No. 001, September 1996, pp. 11.
    33. Indonesia bans OPs. PN 34, December 1996, p. 18.
    34. PANAP, 1996, op cit.
    35. Von Hildebrand, A., Pesticide problems and IPM: Implementation in Madagasca, PN 25, September 1994, pp. 12-13.
    36. PAN-Africa 1996, op cit.
    37. PANAP, 1996, op cit. [This article first appeared in Pesticides News No.47, March 2000, p20]

  4. Julia Wasson on March 12th, 2011 8:27 pm

    Elena, thank you for reading. There are an outrageous number of harmful chemicals used on fruits and vegetables grown in the US and abroad. The best way to help keep that number down is to purchase organic foods as much as possible. And, of course, it’s important to tell your legislators of your concerns. Until we clean up the mess we have made, cancer will surely be prevalent.

    Please accept my sincere wishes for your mother’s speedy recovery.
    ~ Julia

  5. Julia Wasson on March 12th, 2011 8:35 pm

    Dipak Kumar Singh also offers this link from THE HINDU about endosulfan:

    http://www.hindu.com/2010/11/21/stories/2010112159840400.htm

  6. dipak on April 29th, 2011 9:11 am

    LOOKS LIKE ITS THE END OF ENDOSULFAN , at Geneva.
    Some credit to BPGL.

  7. Together, We Change the World : Blue Planet Green Living on December 23rd, 2011 8:28 pm

    [...] a writer from India who advocates for safer conditions for the people of his country. His post, Notes from India: We Are Poisoning Our Planet, described the horrific effects of spraying the chemical Endosulfan on crops in India and other [...]