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Updated: May 1, 2011 10:19 IST

Why endosulfan, all insecticides are poison

Dr. S. Rajendran Pillai
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Some endosulfan victims in Kasargod, Kerala. File photo: Johney Thomas
The Hindu
Some endosulfan victims in Kasargod, Kerala. File photo: Johney Thomas

The pathetic plight of the people of Kasaragod in Kerala, in the wake of the endosulfan fiasco, brings into focus an issue which is a ramification of the green revolution. Whatever the technical grounds for its acceptance or rejection, the fear engulfing the minds of people can be removed only if a full-fledged assurance is given on the complete ban on the pesticide.

Insecticides which kill the worms that destroy crops are seldom selective in their action. Most of them affect other life forms though at a higher dose. An insecticide is basically a poison. By its very mode of action, a poison is detrimental to all life forms; only the dosage to manifest the adverse effects varies.

According to Paracelsus, Swiss physician of the Rrenaissance period, “all things are poison and nothing is without poison. It is the dose that makes a thing not a poison.” Most of the body sprays, phenolic soaps and lotions and even naphthalene balls are known to be carcinogenic. However, we are able to tolerate a low dose of exposure in daily life.

Several external agents are continuously destroying the vital molecules in the body of living forms. But in most cases, especially in higher life forms, these are restored through a repair mechanism. When the repair mechanism is weak or not able to cope with them, different diseases develop.

In Kasaragod, endosulfan was aerially sprayed from a helicopter. Though effective in uniform dispersal, this procedure is the root cause of the present malady. The droplets of the insecticide would have traversed several kilometres beyond the boundary of the plantation. This would naturally adversely affect other life forms, including humans. Thus, aerial spraying has to be abandoned and spraying with hand machines is more desirable even though it is labour intensive. Spraying has to be carried out after checking with the weather department about imminent rain or cyclone. Both natural events would diminish the effect of the insecticide on the plantation and also carry the poison to undesired locations.

The spray is pointed at insects adhering to the leaves and flowers. But a large quantity of it may fall on other regions and the ground. This may be carried by wind for several days to far-off places.

Wake-up call

The story of DDT was the wake-up call. Traces of this compound were noticed even among the penguins living in the South Pole, where no spray of DDT was ever carried out. In other words, the spray from the habited land mass has crossed the continental borders and reached almost the entire globe. It has also crossed the placental barrier and new babies are born with DDT contamination. Even the mother's milk contains a small dosage of DDT. This is the fate of a chemical thought to be marvellous in controlling insects and to have contributed immensely to the agricultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The inventor also won the Nobel Prize for contribution thought to be the wonder chemical in the initial years.

The banning of DDT was spearheaded by a U.S. researcher who found that this chemical had adversely impacted the life of certain water birds.

Another mode of transport is by water and this may find access to the nearby river. This contamination will have a deleterious effect on marine life. Some of the marine life may accumulate certain chemicals, which may enter the food chain of land animals at a higher dose detrimental to health. Further, bio-magnification to a lethal dose may take place in the higher life forms. The Minamata disease that occurred in Japan is a standing example of such maladies. In this case, marine organisms bio-accumulated mercury that causes nervous diseases. Thus continuous analysis of soil, water and air samples has to be carried out around the area of insecticide spray to understand the imminent impact and retain it within tolerable limits.


Even after a ban on endosulfan, it is necessary to resort to other forms of insecticides. Several constraints and precautions have to be exercised in the usage.

1. Spraying is a technically skilled job and has to be carried out manually by skilled personnel on the ground. These personnel have to be certified by the Agricultural department.

2. They shall wear special protective clothing and respirators. A mere mask is not enough.

3. After the spray, the clothing and respirator have to be cleaned up and stored after packing on the farm itself. It is even desirable to bury the cloth in the plantation itself.

4. The personnel have to be fully decontaminated (which includes bathing) before they go home. Children and pregnant women at home are likely to be more susceptible to these poisons.

5. Simultaneous scientific investigations on the flora and fauna around the plantation should be carried out throughout the year in addition to the analysis of air, water and soil samples.

6. Contamination may spread to waterbodies around the plantation and affect marine life. Land erosion and leaching in the sprayed area have to be arrested with appropriate action.

7. If any adverse effect is noticed, the insecticide has to be discontinued. It is not necessary to wait until a human catastrophe of unmanageable magnitude surfaces to rouse the conscience of society.

Not only endosulfan, but most other insecticides are poison to all forms of life.

(The writer, a Ph.D. in Chemistry and nuclear researcher, is interested

in environmental issues. His email is

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I completely agree with A. Menon above. When DDT was banned, people started to die of malaria in many African countries and their governments realized their folly only to later reintroduce it. Banning pesticides will have a negative impact on the lives of farmers, and the society as a whole. The rich can always afford 'pesticide-free natural products' which also carry the misnomer bio-organic food.Poor people need to survive, and for this, production (i.e., yield) has to increase to keep costs down.By eliminating broad-spectrum pesticides, we are in effect hurting the poor. People tend to believe that they are participating in a good cause by supporting pesticide ban. This is pseudo-scientific at the best.

from:  Padmakumar Rao
Posted on: May 9, 2011 at 22:41 IST

Even if Japan is not in a position to control the disasters made by nuclear plants, it is impossible to control the same for a corrupt country like India. Some of the cleaning lotions must also be banned. People use acids and certain liquids which contains poisons in bathrooms and toilet. The intake of such liquids are poison. These liquids get mixed up with ground water and affect those who drink the water.

from:  Jaseem Ambalangadan
Posted on: May 6, 2011 at 10:52 IST

Remember, it is the dose that determines the poison. Insecticides have also done a lot of good in eradicating a pests of both human and crops. The much villified DDT has helped diminish the scourge of malaria which has killed millions of people in Asia and Africa. Many of the accusations against DDT have been proven false eg. the thinning of egg shells was caused by a Calcium deficiency. Dr. J. Gordon Edwards is the late emeritus professor of Biology, San Jose State University. He is a strong proponent of DDT. He would swallow a tablespoon of DDT on stage before every lecture on the subject. It was calculated that Edwards had 'eaten 200 times the normal human intake of DDT.' He did not even consider this gesture risky. Edwards died at the age of 84 while hiking the Divide Mountain.
Current pesticides have to undergo many regulatory hurdles before they are registered. It is often the misuse of pesticides by humans that cause most of the problems. So we should be working against the misuse and misapplication of these chemicals rather than spread terror and fear. Responsible use is the key and not a total ban.

from:  A. Menon
Posted on: May 6, 2011 at 06:12 IST

Congratulations to 'The Hindu' for printing articles like this. Living in the cities we sometimes forget about the dangers of pesticides in all areas of our lives.

from:  Nandita Shah
Posted on: May 1, 2011 at 20:31 IST

Yes contamination reaches everywhere as we all share the same planet.This is why I am sending you the link to this upload on youtube by a Frenchman living in Tokyo with his Japanese wife who will give you a Tokyo citizen's view of the extent of poisoning presently in the food chain in Japan from dumping of radioactive material into the sea. Please check this link out. There is also a second link which I have added to prove why earthquake security for nuclear plants is not possible
Apparently 1 kg of small fish in japan has 4000(four thousand ) becquerels of radioactive iodine and 500 becquerels of deadly cesium and small fish are now banned in Japan. The second link is from an insider of the nuclear US industry who says it is impossible to put in viable safetly measures for a nuclear plant as the costs are unimaginable and not viable for the nuclear business so the safety reports are always FAKED!

from:  Angela Alvares
Posted on: May 1, 2011 at 11:34 IST
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