Notes from India: We Are Poisoning Our Planet

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

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