The government's argument in the court appears weak in science and perhaps strong in commerce
The Random House Dictionary of English Language defines the word ‘cynic' as a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view; and ‘cynical' as showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality.
These definitions come to mind when one reads the arguments that the Central government has made before the Supreme Court of India on the issue of banning of the pesticide endosulfan.
This is in response to a petition filed by the Democratic Youth Federation of India on the ill effects of endosulfan on the environment and human life, and that it should be banned. Reporting on the proceedings in the court, J. Venkatesan of The Hindu writes on August 3: “The Centre has said that long-term use of the pesticide was unlikely to present public health concern. The Centre made it clear that endosulfan was not the reason behind health problem in Kasargod in Kerala”. The court asked the government to appoint a committee to look into the health issue and report.
This was done and The Hindu reports on August 6: “The committee's interim report said public health concern or hazard associated with the pesticide was not reported from any state barring Kerala and Karnataka”.
And the Centre maintained that except in Kerala and Karnataka, no negative impact of this pesticide on crops, human and animal health or environment was reported anywhere and the ban should not be imposed in other states.
What is the truth?
Is the government correct? Are Kerala and Karnataka so different environmentally and genetically that they are the only areas where life forms were affected? Or is the argument based on the fact that banning endosulfan will affect the market, where the annual value is Rs 270 crores? Three manufacturers (Hindustan Insecticides Ltd, Coromandel Fertilizers and Excel Crop Care) together produce about 8500 tones of endosulfan every year, amounting to 70 per cent of the world production.
In science, we look at and analyze all data available on a given issue, look for cogency and consistency between them and decide whether the information culled out of them makes sense, or whether more research is needed in order to arrive at a rigorous conclusion. And on issues concerning health and public welfare, society generally adopts the cautionary principle.
Hence, let us look at what science has suggested so far or the effects of endosulfan on the environment and on life. Several comprehensive summaries are available free online, and are highly recommended. One is in Wikipedia, on the topic of endosulfan, with 94 references and licensed by Creative Commons. The other is an equally comprehensive summary, available at http://www.panna.org/resources/specific-pesticides/endosulfan
These reports not only describe the chronology of the endosulfan effects and the international efforts (WHO, Environmental Justice Foundation, Parties to the Rotterdam Convention) as well as reports from Indian government centres and industry groups.
The CSIR lab Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), based in Lucknow came out with a report as early as 1989 (Toxicity Data Handbook. Vol III, Pesticide A) classifying endosulfan as extremely hazardous.
“The Final Report of The Investigation of Unusual Illnesses Allegedly Produced by Endosulfan Exposure in Padre Village of Kasargod District, N. Kerala : NIOH Study” states that endosulfan exposure in early life may result in adverse health effects in later life.
What does current scientific literature say? A quick search in PubMed revealed that (a) organochlorine pesticide residues (endosulfan, DDT, aldrin etc. were found in fresh and Pasteurized cow's milk from Kampala market in Uganda (Chemosphere, August 2011): (b) endosulfan provokes systemic toxicity in the brains of rats (study from Greece in The Journal of Toxicological Sciences, April 2011), and (c) one from an ICAR lab in our own Andaman Islands, which reports in the June 2011 issue of Fish Physiology and Biochemistry that endosulfan exposure severely altered liver histology in fish.
The government's argument in the court thus appears weak in science and perhaps strong in commerce, of more on wealth than on health. Why else would the Agriculture Minister Pawar declare six months ago that India will not ban endosulfan?
The entire saga is eerily reminiscent of DDT, which was hailed as a wonder pesticide, and used effectively and successfully a generation ago.
Its ill effects and health hazards come to light only later, and it is now banned the world over. Recall that DDT was first synthesized in 1874, but its insecticidal properties came to light only in 1939, thanks to the German scientist Paul Mueller.
Its successful use during the II World War against mosquitoes was a huge success, and Mueller was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Companies like Ciba, Olin, Monsanto and Montrose manufactured DDT in tons and tons. Then came Rachel Carson who, in her “Silent Spring”, catalogued the environmental havoc that DDT causes.
This triggered the Environmental Movement, and thanks to their efforts, DDT was banned for widespread use in 1972. With endosulfan, the results have hit us in the face well ahead of time.
(It was first manufactured in 1954, and its ill effects came to light by the 1990s. Its ban was imposed already by 2000, a full decade before today).
Let us use the cautionary principle and not commercial priority, stop endosulfan and pursue research on safer alternatives. That would be the way of science.
Keywords: Endosulfan ban