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Idukki faces grave health risks from indiscriminate use of pesticides?

Roy Mathew
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Endosulfan liberally used in cardamom plantations

The perception of threat to human and animal health and well-being in Idukki district, as elsewhere in the State, from the excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides in plantations and vegetable gardens has risen as never before, detailed accounts by a number of medical professionals in the field indicate, although further research studies are needed to reach conclusive scientific findings on the correlation.

Several hospitals in Idukki district have, of late, reported a rise in instances of chronic poisoning. Cancers such as those affecting the intestinal tract, blood, lungs and liver and congenital abnormalities are seemingly on the rise too. Sufficient studies on their prevalence patterns and links to the use of pesticides, however, are yet to be done.

Official and other sources said Endosulfan, which was banned in the State, was being liberally used in cardamom plantations in the district. The supplies came from Tamil Nadu. Many highly poisonous pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other chemicals were in use in the district.

Muthuswamy Murugan, Professor, Cardamom Research Station, Pampadumpara, Idukki, said pesticide consumption by the cardamom and tea plantations in the district was one of the highest in the world.

The cardamom plantations, on an average, used 27 kg of active ingredients a hectare while the tea plantations used 9 kg of active ingredients a hectare in 2009. This was when average pesticide consumption in India across all crops was half a kg a hectare. Pesticides were sprayed every 15 to 18 days on the cardamom estates. Thus, there would be 18 to 25 sprays a year against the recommended seven rounds a season/year. Pesticides commonly used in cardamom and tea estates had been found to be very toxic to all forms of life. Their residues had been found in soil and in cardamom pods, he said.

Cancer cases

K. Anil Pradeep, a doctor at St. John's Hospital, Kattappana, said that 10 to 20 persons had come to him with symptoms of lung cancer in the past one year. Previously, he had not seen such patients in any significant numbers. There was also a higher prevalence of liver, oesophageal and intestinal cancers in the area compared to the general population.

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.

R. Mini, paediatrician at the taluk hospital, Nedumkandam, said the incidence of congenital anomalies such as cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome was high in the area compared to other parts of the State. 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 pesticides. (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.

Special schools

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 Ltd.). The school at Nedumkandam has 91 pupils, while four institutions in Kattappana town, which is in the middle of the cardamom reserves, have more than 250 children.

Altogether, the district has 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; some are cared for by unregistered institutions. So, the correct position about the prevalence of the afflictions can be determined only by household surveys.

V.K. Prasanth, doctor at the Pampadumpara Public Health Centre (PHC), said a Health Department survey in four wards of the Pampadumpara panchayat covering nearly 1,000 families reported 20 cancer cases. However, it could not be concluded that these were because of pesticides without further studies. Several patients had rectal and intestinal cancer.

Poisoning

He said five to 10 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 abortion rates were high in his area compared to the general population. However, gynaecologist Joson Varghese of the taluk hospital at Nedumkandam said he had not found any abnormal levels of abortion. Though there were cases of early onset of puberty, such developments occurred in other parts of the State too.

Dr. Prasanth suggested that the high rate of suicides in the district could also be owing to depressive illness caused by pesticides. At Patharippara colony in Pampadumpara, nearly 90 people in the age group of 20 to 45 years had committed suicide in the last few years.

Suicides

Brothers Nobi and Noshi Jose, who had provided vehicles for transporting the bodies, said that they had transported more than 50 bodies in three years from areas such as Patharippara, Kurisumala and Adiyarpuram. However, the numbers had come down now. The suicides were often over minor or solvable problems. Nearly 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 the Kadackal area in Thiruvananthapuram district. Many suffered from depression and drank liquor.

Fish kills

They said pesticides eliminated many invertebrates in the locality and caused fish kills. The local population was less prone to the ill effects of pesticides than migrants.

Narrating his experiences, a worker who did not wish to be named in the media, said he suffered from breathlessness, irritation and 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 developed resistance to them. When using motorised sprays, one could not prevent pesticides from falling on to the body with changing winds. The winds usually blew away clouds of pesticides to nearby areas, exposing others too.

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.


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