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The Endosulfan muddle

The Endosulfan muddle
Victims of endosulfan insecticide and activists have reason to smile. The Karnataka High Court has directed the state government to pay a monthly stipend to the 6,140 affected in three coastal districts – Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, and Uttara Kannada. In neighbouring Kerala, victims are already receiving compensation from the state government.

Endosulfan is a generic off-patent pesticide being used worldwide on crops, mainly cotton, coffee and tea, for more than 60 years. Victims affected by spraying of endosulfan in Kerala and Karnataka have been fighting battles in courts and with the government, seeking a ban on the manufacture and use of endosulfan and also monetary relief.

The endosulfan story can be traced to the mid-1990s in Kasargod district. For nearly 20 years, since 1978, this pesticide was being aerially sprayed on vast tracts of cashew plantations. Locals, whose health was being abnormally affected, linked it to endosulfan. Rumours and speculations gained currency. Environmentalists, local groups, NGOs and activists have been relating every possible disease and illness, such as cancer, skin infection, congenital deformities and infertility, to this insecticide spray. Consequently, the Kerala government banned it in 2001.

Because of its threats to human health and the environment, and following health problems in Kasargod that became the focal point of an international campaign, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, at its meeting in Geneva in April 2011, negotiated a global ban (phase out) on the manufacture and use of endosulfan. The phase out was slated to take effect in mid-2012, with certain uses exempted for five additional years. India backtracked from  its  earlier  stand on opposing  a global  ban,  and agreed  to  a compromise  on gradually  phasing out  endosulfan over  11 years, while  finding a cost-effective alternative. Already, around 75 countries, including the US and India, have banned its use.

The Supreme Court passed an interim order, in May 2011, to ban countrywide the manufacture, sale and use of endosulfan. The court also appointed a Joint Committee, headed by the Director General of ICMR and the Commissioner (Agriculture), to conduct a scientific study to find out whether the use of endosulfan would cause any serious health hazard to human beings and environmental pollution. The committee recommended that the use and manufacture of endosulfan may be permitted for two years to exhaust all stocks of the raw material.

A cross-section of researchers, scientists and the Kerala government asserts that exposure to endosulfan has led to cancer, brain damage, delayed puberty, damage to the central nervous system and deformities in limbs. Another section of experts attributes these to the misuse and overuse of endosulfan.

Crystal clear medical evidence from Indian research labs is grossly lacking. Dr K M Sreekumar and
Dr K D Prathapan, from Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), say there is  little scientific evidence to prove that the incidence  of  physical  or  mental  illness  is  higher  in  areas  in  Kasaragod  district  sprayed  with endosulfan.  However, they add that the  limited,  available  evidence  indicate  that  there  is  no  unusual  health problem, over and above that prevalent in the general population. ‘It is surprising that so far no reliable epidemiological data has been generated and compared with national/state average.’

However, the world view is clear. Several studies by international researchers have documented that endosulfan is toxic and causes reproductive and developmental damage in both humans and animals. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union rate endosulfan as ‘highly hazardous’, whereas the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies it as ‘moderately hazardous’. The Industrial Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, a constituent laboratory of the CSIR, classifies it as ‘extremely hazardous’.

But, endosulfan is not listed as known, probable, or possible carcinogen by the EPA, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), or other agencies. No epidemiological studies link exposure to endosulfan specifically to cancer in humans. But in vitro analyses have shown that endosulfan can promote proliferation of human breast cancer cells. Evidence of carcinogenicity in animals is mixed.

Endosulfan was sprayed aerially in many African countries, under a programme monitored by the WHO, to control the large blood sucking tseste flies, vector of the deadly sleeping sickness. No adverse health impacts were found.

Conversely, the scenario in India is quite muddled. Available data and research are sporadic, skewed, inconsistent, tenuous and unconvincing. Concerted and coordinated peer-reviewed studies and research are lacking. One may question how decisions were taken to ban its use.  Arguments are wide and have flaws, faults, merits and demerits. The pro- and anti-endosulfan lobbies in India have been generating their data to throw evidence. Their conflicting claims and counter-claims are being challenged.  The lobbies include farmers’ associations, not-for-profit organisations, central and state governments, besides scientific, socialist and pressure groups. Each seems to have a vested interest.

It is strange why in-depth assessment studies on this pesticide’s adverse effects have not been carried out in Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, where it has been in use for a long time.

At the commercial end, endosulfan manufacturers argue that a ban would necessitate import  of costly patented pesticides. But, anti-endosulfan campaigners argue that though this may be  true in the case of some crops, the price of pesticides in the market is not often decided by whether they are patented or not.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that hazardous pesticides and chemicals need to be banned.

The author is an independent journalist
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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