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Meal may have been poisoned with organic phosphorus

Staff Reporter
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A man grieves over the body of his child who died after consuming a free midday meal in the Saran district of Bihar on July 17, 2013.— PHOTO: AFP
A man grieves over the body of his child who died after consuming a free midday meal in the Saran district of Bihar on July 17, 2013.— PHOTO: AFP

High-level of organic phosphorus content in midday meal is suspected to have caused the death of 22 children at the Gandaman Primary School in Chapra in Bihar’s Saran district, preliminary inquiries suggest.

On Wednesday, Education Minister P.K. Shahi claimed political conspiracy aimed at destabilising the government was behind the incident.

Around 50 children were rushed to the government hospital and other private hospitals in Chapra on Tuesday when they started falling sick after having the day’s mid-day meal of rice, dal , potato and soya bean. Sixteen of them died in Chapra itself.

Another four died en route to the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) and were declared dead on arrival. On Wednesday morning between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., two more kids lost their lives, taking the toll to 22.

“It is clear that the food contained poison. According to the doctors, judging from the vomiting and smell of the breath of affected children, organic phosphorus was the cause of poisoning. It comes in solid, liquid and gaseous form, which when used in excess, acts as poison. Forensic tests will determine what form of the chemical was present in the food,” Mr. Shahi said at a press conference here. “The culprit,” he said “was the vegetable.”

Twenty-four children, three of who are in a critical condition, and one cook are still under treatment in Patna.

“This morning we lost two of the 26 children admitted to the PMCH. The pupils of the children were constricted. They had vomiting and stomach ache. From the smell we could deduct that they had organic phosphorus poisoning. Those who died had a high dose of poison intake and their general health was also poor due to which they did not respond to the treatment. We have performed post mortems and blood tests on critical patients to determine the exact levels of poison in their system,” PMCH superintendent Amarkant Jha Azad told The Hindu .

The phosphorous level was so high that by Wednesday noon, the PMCH had used up nearly 2,000 ampoules of atropine, a drug used to treat poisoning, Mr. Azad said.

Cook ‘doubts’ oil

Government officials said many locals had suspicions about the oil used in preparing the meal.

“I used mustard oil in the cooking, about 250 mg in quantity. While the other condiments came in proper packets, the oil was came in a nondescript container seen in stores selling pesticides and other farm-related material. I did not find anything wrong with the food when I ate it, but I doubt the oil,” cook Manju Kumari told The Hindu from her hospital bed in Patna.

She said the other cook, Panno Devi, lost her two kids in this incident. “All the food grain and meal items were stored at the house of the headmistress Meena Kumari. The children did complain that the food tasted funny, so I ate it to find out what was wrong with it. By midnight I too started to vomit and fell sick like the children,” Ms. Kumari said.

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