Stop the cycle of poison

  • 27/02/2003

After we released our study on pesticide residues on bottled water, an experienced science journalist called me to verify something I had said in the press conference. He wanted to know if it was really true that the government had not laid down quantified standards for pesticide residues in drinking water, let alone packaged drinking water. "You mean to say that even till date we do not have norms for what are acceptable and permissible levels of pesticide residue in water?" he kept asking. It seemed he was clearly inexperienced and innocent in the ways of the 'real' scientific establishment and had spent too many years in the company of 'rockstar' scientists.

But it is true. And it is shameful. What shocked us, in the pesticide expose (February 15, 2003), is not that we found high levels of pesticide residues in bottled water, but that the toxic and deadly residues were legal - blessed by the incompetent and indifferent regulator. The Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) - the equivalent of the food and drug safety and certification organisations of other countries - has set standards for drinking water and packaged drinking water. In the case of pesticide residues, the standards for drinking water say that the residues should be "absent" and in the case of packaged drinking water - set much more recently - the standards cryptically say: pesticide residues should be "below detectable limits". But as we explained in our study, the underlying principle is that if you don't look for something you will not find it. So, the method of detection specified by the regulator, set over 20 years ago, uses a less sensitive equipment, which would not be able to detect residues, unless present in high quantities.

So, the companies, the big and the biggest caught in this shocking expose, have only one excuse in their defence: they meet the standards set by the Indian government. They are legal. Forget what their products contain - up to 5 different pesticide residues, in some as high as 104 times above the permissible norms for drinking water of the European Union. Forget that we found residues in every sample we tested. Forget that this is criminal. After all we Indians deserve this, the companies would say. We are used to being immune to our government's laxity, we can be immune to some pesticides.

But the response from media and the public has been incredible. The story captured headlines. Sales of bottled water dropped sharply. The government, usually asleep, swiftly ordered an enquiry. The bis has, within a week of the release of our study, started the process of revising the standards for pesticide residues in water. So should we pat ourselves on the back for the good work that we have done?

Not yet. Not for long. The challenge is just beginning to unfold. One of the most devastating findings is that we found the pesticides in the bottled water because we found terribly high pesticide levels in the raw water the companies were using. We found contamination in Delhi and Mumbai - in tapwater, river water and groundwater.

What will we do now? How can we even begin to clean up the horrendous poison seeping into our lifeline - our water? Even if packaged water industry is forced to clean up its act and behave responsibly, what will millions and millions, who drink this water, do? What is their option? It is vital that we begin to discuss this carefully and closely.

Pesticide residues are an unfair health risk. The levels of multiple residues we found, highly dangerous ones like lindane, ddt or chlorpyrifos, are unacceptable. These will damage our bodies with long-term exposure. This is clear. What do we do about it isn't.

Firstly, it is important to remember that cleaning tiny - nanoparticles and even smaller - residues is not easy or cheap. A city as rich as New York has found that it is cheaper to pay farmers living in the watersheds of the city not to use pesticides, than to invest in equipment to clean it up. The city funds a watershed agricultural programme in the Catskills - upstream of the city - so that farmers can change their practices and use much less pesticides.

We, on the other hand, pay farmers through subsidies to use ever greater quantities of unnecessary pesticides and insecticides. What can we do to regulate and minimise the use of these toxins, without jeopardising agricultural productivity? A lot I am sure, if we put our minds to it. We can find ways to reduce use, move to far more benign substances - with new research and innovation - and value the labour of farmers so that they can make more, even if they produce less with less intensive agriculture.

Secondly, this is also a question of regulation. But the regulator is deaf and dumb and operates in the darkness of night; can we expect proper vision on the nature of pesticides allowed in the country? Remember, the nature of the business is that one toxic substance be replaced with another such substance, or one that is even more lethal. This is exactly how global business works. So, if ddt is found to be noxious - and incidentally its patent runs out as well - companies find it much more profitable to 'substitute' it with an 'improved' alternative - ddt in another name, in another place.

The rich world can make money first by producing toxins and then by producing its alternative toxins or clean up technologies; we can't. Our world cannot afford this farce of development. It will be exorbitant and deadly.

The cycle of poison must be stopped. There is no other way for us.

- Sunita Narain

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