Excessive use of pesticides in the plantations and vegetable gardens of Idukki district is posing a threat to the health of locals as well as people in other parts of the State.
Hospitals in the district report many instances of acute poisoning. Instances of chronic poisoning also are evidently going up. Cancers such as that of the intestinal tract, blood, lungs and liver and congenital abnormalities seems to be on the increase. Sufficient studies on their prevalence and link to the pesticides are yet to be done.
Endosulfan, which is banned in the State, is being liberally used in the cardamom plantations of the district. The supplies come from Tamil Nadu. Many highly poisonous pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other chemicals are in use in the district.
Professor Muthuswamy Muragan of Cardamom Research Station at Pampadumpara in Idukki district notes that pesticide consumption by the cardamom and tea plantations of the district is one of the highest in the world. The cardamom plantations, on an average, used 27 kg of active ingredients per hectare while the tea plantations used 9 km of active ingredients a hectare in 2009. This is when average pesticide consumption in India across all crops is half a kg per hectare. Pesticides are sprayed every 15 to 18 days in the cardamom estates. Thus, there would be 18 to 25 sprays a year against recommended use of seven rounds per season/year. Pesticides commonly used in cardamom and tea estates have been found to be very toxic to all forms of life. Their residues have been found in soil as well as in cardamom pods.
Dr. K. Anil Pradeep of St. John’s Hospital, Kattappana, said that ten to 20 persons had come to him with symptoms of lung cancer during the past one year. There was also high prevalence of liver cancer, oesophagus cancer and intestinal cancer. Those coming into direct contact with pesticides often complained of allergies, asthma and skin problems. Pesticides caused cancer, impotence and congenital deformities after 10 to 20 years of chronic exposure.
Dr. R. Mini, paediatrician of the Taluk Hospital at Nedumkandam said that the incidence of congenital anomalies such as cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome were high in the area. Three children in the area had meningomyelocele (spinal cord lesion) with hydrocephalus (enlargement of head owing to accumulation of fluid). There was, however, no proof that it was caused by pesticide. (One of the patients at Balagram near Nedumkandam died recently).
These kinds of abnormalities have been noticed in the endosulfan-affected areas of Kasaragod district. According to medscape.com, poisoning is one of the possible reasons for hydrocephalus. Idukki district has eight registered and several unrecognised special schools for mentally retarded. The unregistered schools include one run by Kanan Devan Hill Produce Company (formerly Tata Tea Limited). The school at Nedumkantam has 91 pupils while four institutions in Kattappana town, which is the middle of the cardamom reserves, have more than 250 children.
Altogether, the district have more than 750 mentally retarded children in registered special schools while the plantation district of Wayanad with more than two thirds the population of Idukki has only 341 mentally retarded children in registered special schools. Many children, especially those with afflictions such as cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus are not sent to special schools and some are cared by unregistered institutions. So, the correct position about prevalence of the afflictions could be determined only by house-hold surveys.
Dr. V. K. Prasanth of Pampadumpara Public Health Centre said that a Health Department survey in four wards of the Pampadumpara panchayat covering about 1000 families reported 20 cancer cases. A survey by Junior Red Cross of high ranges indicated higher prevalence of cancer. However, it could not be concluded that they were because of pesticides without further studies. Several patients had rectal and intestinal cancer.
He said that about five to ten per cent of the patients coming to the PHC had symptoms related to pesticide poisoning. They complained of headache, nausea and general weakness after spraying of pesticides. Many who had exposed themselves to pesticides had asthma and contact (allergic) dermatitis. Women complained of irregular menstrual cycles.
Dr. Prasanth said that abortion rates were high in his area. However, Gynaecologist Joson Varghese of Taluk Hospital at Nedumkandam said he had not found any abnormal levels of abortion. Though there were cases of early puberty, such developments occurred in other parts of the State also.
Dr. Prasanth suggested that the high rates of suicides in the district could also be due to depressive illness caused by pesticides. At Patharipara colony in Pampadumpara, about 90 persons in the age group of 20 to 45 years had committed suicide during the last few years. Brothers Nobi and Noshi Jose, who had provided vehicles for transport of the bodies, said that they had transported more than 50 bodies in three years from areas such as Patharippara, Kurisumala and Adiyarpuram. However, the suicides have now come down. The suicides were often over minor or solvable problems. About 50 per cent of the victims were Tamil migrant labourers. The prevalence of suicides was also high among a group of people who had migrated from Kadackal area of Thiruvananthapuram district. Many suffered from depression and drank liquor.
They said that pesticides eliminated many invertebrates in the locality and caused fish kills. Local population was less prone to ill effects of pesticides than migrants. Narrating his experiences, a worker who did not wish to be named in the media, said that he suffered from breathlessness, irritation, burning sensation after spraying pesticides. Falling of pesticides into water courses could not be avoided and fill kills sometimes occurred for up to 2 km from the source of the spray. Many estates used an overdose of pesticides as pests develop resistance to pesticides. When using motorised sprays, one could not avoid pesticides from falling on to your body with changing winds. The winds usually blow away clouds of pesticides to nearby areas, exposing others also.
As vegetables and other agriculture products from the district are sold outside the district, people in different parts of the State are also at risk.