The tragedy of people exposed to pesticide Endosulfan in Kasaragod district of Kerala is continuing. Despite government promises, official efforts to treat and rehabilitate the victims and protect them from further exposure to contaminated soil and water are wanting.
While incidences of children born with neurobehavioral disorders, congenital malformations and other abnormalities have come down in some of the 11 worst-affected panchayats, they continue to occur in other panchayats.
While about 500 deaths from 1995 have been officially acknowledged as related to the spraying of endosulfan, unofficial estimates put the total number of deaths since the late seventies around 4000.
People are still dying from after-effects of the pesticide, while more than 1000 live in utter misery. The health of more than 9000 persons has been impaired by the pesticide used by the State-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala at its cashew plantations.
The Corporation began aerial spraying of the pesticide in its plantations spread across 15 panchayats in the district in 1978 and its application continued till 2001.
The pesticide, which is not easily degradable, contaminated the soil and water and found its way into the food chain affecting lower and higher forms of life in the area including humans.
The half-life of endosulfan varies from 60 days to 800 days. In its Kasaragod estate alone, the Plantation Corporation sprayed 31510 litres of endosulfan between 1990 and 2000. Only a small fraction of this would be remaining in the environment now.
However, its degradative products such as endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan diol are also toxic. The combined half life of endosulfan and its toxic residues is estimated to range from nine months to six years, according to Environmental Protection Agency of the United States.
This means that toxic materials could still be present in the environment of the affected villages in measurable quantities, especially in sediments where they accumulate. (A daily intake of even 0.006 mg endosulfan per kg of body weight by humans could be harmful.)
The accumulated quantity of toxins in the environment as in 2001 would have come down to about 30 per cent or the original quantity if we assume half-life of six years and less than 0.5 per cent if we assume half-life of nine months.
The actual quantity would be something in-between spread across a large area. Besides, there is the possibility of very high levels of bioaccumulation and bio-concentration in sediments and the food chain.
With the reduction of the poison in the environment, insects, butterflies and other species, which had almost disappeared from the affected panchayats have returned.
Dr. Y.S. Mohana Kumar, who runs medical clinics at Yathrika and two nearby localities and who was the first doctor to invite public attention to the rising number of congenital abnormalities in the nineties, told The Hindu that cases of children born with abnormalities had returned to normalcy in his locality. There had been no birth of disabled children in the Perla and Padre areas for the past three months.
The incidence of congenital abnormalities, neurological disorders, abortions, epilepsy and other diseases were now comparable to the rest of the population in the State.
Abnormalities caused by hormonal imbalance would take at least ten more years to disappear.
However, Dr. M. Mohammed, who serves the public health centre at Kadarudukka, said that surveys had shown that the incidence of bone deformities, infertility, mental retardation and congenital heart diseases in the panchayat were ten times more than those among the other populations.
Babies were being born even now with cleft palates and other congenital abnormalities. New cases of mental retardation were also being reported.
The government machinery has been lax in addressing the problems ever since they were reported in the nineties.
The government failed to decontaminate the water-sources or arrange alternate water supply-either through large schemes or rain water harvesting. The sources of several of existing water supply schemes are contaminated.
Even water supplied through tankers in summer is not tested for presence of pesticides. The attempts of government to provide medical care and ensure rehabilitation of the affected people was often delayed and failed to achieve much. Though a relief and remediation cell was formed at the Kasaragod collectorate, its activities had been hampered by absence of drive, shortage of funds and other problems.
On the other hand, voluntary groups and organisations like the Solidarity Youth Movement had been able to extend better support to the victims in a better manner.