Sunday, July 8, 2007

Pesticide poisoning in rural Punjab



A Report of a Fact Finding Visit by Kheti Virasat Mission

By Umendra Dutt

21st July 2006

21 July 2006 began as any other day for the residents of Salkiana village in Jalandhar district. That was until around 8.30 am - until they started feeling severe suffocation and breathlessness. The worst affected were the school children of the Government-run Elementary School. It was just after Morning Prayers that the students started complaining of a strange smell and breathlessness. The teachers were not aware of what happened either. Suddenly one student fell unconscious near the hand pump [of the drinking water tube well] and then student after student started to faint. Within ten minutes, 16 students fainted after inhaling something that was toxic.

It was not just the school children who were affected. The villagers outside the school were also experiencing and complaining about breathlessness by then. Some women in the adjoining houses are reported to have fainted too.

There was total panic in the village for a while. It was only then the villagers began to realize what happened – IT WAS A DEADLY PESTICIDE SPRAYED IN A NEARBY SUGARCANE FIELD THAT HAD AFFECTED THE VILLAGERS. The villagers then understood that they were experiencing acute poisoning symptoms.

Meanwhile the farm workers, who had sprayed this pesticide, came into the village and disclosed that they had sprayed PHORATE. In this case, it was Sudarshan Chemicals’ SUTOX 100 that they had sprayed. The workers had sprayed 15 kilos of Phorate 10G in 3.75 acres by then.

In the school, the situation had become quite serious by then and the teachers started experiencing breathlessness too. Students started complaining of difficulty in breathing, severe headache, body ache, irritation in eyes, uneasiness, dizziness and some of them started vomiting.

The teachers acted very swiftly and informed the higher authorities and the local health officer. Within half an hour, a team of doctors reached the school and first-aid was administered. The affected students and teachers were shifted to Civil Hospital, Phillour [the nearest town]. However, some parents took their children to private hospitals also. Some children with severe breathlessness were administered oxygen.

Fact Finding Visit:

Following this incident, Kheti Virasat Mission made a fact-finding visit on 26th and 28th July to this village. The teachers, the students, the other affected villagers, the sarpanch and other farmers were interviewed as part of the fact finding visit. In addition, the FFT [fact finding team] spoke with the doctors in the Civil Hospital and met with the SDM, Phillour.

This report tries to give a picture of the situation based on all the information gathered from these interviews and discussions.

According to the doctors at civil hospital, patients were admitted with following signs and symptoms [somewhat varying between patients]:

1. Excessive Lacrimation
2. Excessive Salivation
3. Dizziness
4. Nausea & Vomiting
5. Breathlessness
6. Body aches and cramps
These patients were given first-aid there and then in the village and later referred to Civil Hospital, Phillaur. Patients were given-

1. I/V fluids
2. Rangers Lactato
3. DNS
4. And 5% Dextrose

-Inj.Atropine I/M & I/V slow in cloop
-Inj. Aciloc sos
-Inj. PAM
-O* 2* Inhalation

The list of patients admitted to the Civil Hospital in Phillaur, following this poisoning incident:

1. Parwinder 13 yrs M
2. Jasbir Kaur 40 yrs F
3. Jeeto 50 yrs F
4. Sonia 13 yrs F
5. Dalwinder 15 yrs F
6. Gurdeep Singh 13 yrs M
7. Reena Kumari 13 yrs F
8. Manjit 9 yrs M
9. Kamla Devi 25 yrs F
10. Naresh Kumari 13 yrs F
11. Manjit Kaur 30 yrs F
12. Navneet Kaur 13 yrs F
13. Raman Deep 12 yrs M
14. Amarjeet Kaur 22 yrs F
15. Dalbiro 40 yrs F
16. Suman 18 yrs F
17. Sukhdev 15 yrs M
18. Bhagwan Dass 52 yrs M

Total: 18 persons. One adult male, seven adult females, 5 male children and 5 female children.

All these patients were in the hospital for three days. Two others patients Suman (18 year old young girl) and Sunita (14 year old girl) were admitted in a private nursing home at Phillaur. Sunita, a newly-married girl inhaled the toxic fumes when she had gone near the fields the next day. Her condition deteriorated soon after and she was taken to the Civil Hospital. She was then referred to a hospital in Ludhiana as her condition was found to be critical. Her family members got her admitted in to Arora Hospital. She was here for four days. These are the 21 cases of hospitalization from the inhalation poisoning from the phorate spraying.

At the time of the fact finding visit, some of the students and teachers were still unwell, even after six days. They had irritation in eyes upto six days, itching of the skin and general uneasiness. The teacher in the government school Mr Bhagwan Dass was complaining of disturbance in his digestive system. He is suffering from constipation and urinary problem. Same were the complaints from Hardev Singh M 38 and Ms Asha Sharma F 34, both teachers at the government school. Bakshish Chand, 37, who is also the ex-sarpanch of the village, had similar complaints.

All children and adults, exposed to PHORATE, were experiencing loss of appetite even on sixth day after exposure. Most of the children poisoned were from SC community with low incomes.

After this incident, there is widespread resentment and concern amongst the villagers regarding pesticides. They are quite worried about safety from pesticides. The elders at village feel that there should at least be restrictions followed about spraying away from the village that too from schools etc.

Mr Ram Kishan, Harjeet Ram and Ram Swarup (all members of the Panchayat) and other villagers were of the strong view that some concrete steps should be taken to prevent such mishaps in future.

The Doctors who worked tirelessly at Civil Hospital, Phillaur were admitting their limitations in dealing with a case like this, given that none of them is a trained environmental epidemiologist.

About Phorate:

Phorate is a Class IA pesticide – which means that by World Health Organisation’s classification, it is “Extremely Hazardous”. Phorate 10% G falls under Class IB. The Food & Agriculture Organisation recommends that products that fall under Class IA and Class I B [Extremely Hazardous and Highly Hazardous] should not be used in developing countries given a variety of safety concerns related to these products.

Phorate poisoning in India

Phorate is an organo-phosphorus pesticide implicated in several poisoning cases earlier. For instance, in June 2001, phorate was implicated in poisoning of workers in a tea estate and in a cardamom plantation in Kerala[1]. A 16 year old boy, Kannan, died applying phorate on June 26th in a cardamom plantation. On the tea estate in Idukki district, on the same day, 41 people in all got affected. They all experienced acute poisoning symptoms of blurred vision, vomiting and dizziness.

Mancini et al report in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 2005 that acute pesticide poisoning from Organophosphorous pesticides like phorate was quite common, especially amongst low-income marginal farmers in cotton growing belts of South India.

There are reports that indicate that upon ingestion of organo phosphate pesticides like phorate and monocrotophos, there is also the danger of Organo Phosphate Induced Delayed Neuropathy, which appears 2-4 weeks after poisoning and leads to motor paralysis [affecting the distal muscles of limbs, minimal sensory involvement, and calf pain, which precedes its onset].

Acute poisoning due to phorate intoxication was reported from Tamluk in West Bengal in the Journal of Indian Pediatrics in 2002. Here, the affected were mainly toddlers.

Significant amongst all the published studies is a report by Kashyap [1986] which reported that “Exposure of 40 formulators to a highly toxic OP insecticide (phorate) showed that over 60% of the workers suffered from toxic effects in spite of using a complete set of protective clothing”[2].

In Wayanad district of Kerala, in July 2002, children exposed to phorate fumes sprayed on banana plantations had to be admitted to hospitals. These children had experienced vomiting, dizziness and headaches.

According to the first information report available with Thanal, on July 10, 2002, children arriving at the Kottathara upper primary school complained of an unbearable stench, obviously from the banana fields where workers were busy applying a mixture of fertilizer and pesticide (Phorate 10%) to the soil before planting the banana rhizomes. As the day progressed, and aided by the breeze, the smell became worse and the children started complaining of severe headache and dizziness. Meanwhile, efforts by the school authorities to stop the workers from continuing using more pesticide were met with a firm refusal. The situation soon began to get out of hand as children began fainting; gram panchayat officials were contacted for jeeps to help carry the students to hospital. On July 17, the children were back in hospital with similar complaints. Doctors confirmed that the symptoms were of acute toxic exposure.

As per a study published in Economic & Political Weekly, December 2004, based on field investigations in high pesticide consumption districts in four states of India, phorate was implicated in creating adverse health effects amongst respondents.

Ch. Srinivas Rao et al reported in the Journal of Tropical Medicine & International Health [Vol. 10, No. 6, June 2005] about acute pesticide poisoning in South India[3]. In this paper, the authors report that Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh alone records more than 1000 pesticide poisoning cases each year and hundreds of deaths. They report that in the district government hospital, between 1997 and 2002, 8040 patients were admitted to the hospital with pesticide poisoning. In 2002, there were 21 cases of poisonings due to phorate, including 4 deaths.

About Class I pesticides in India

It is estimated that 2 to 5 million people every year suffer acute poisonings all over the world and that around 40,000 people die. These are very conservative estimates and these poisonings occur mostly in the developing world, caused mainly due to OP pesticides. Many of these are Class IA and Class IB pesticides. In India, despite the fact that FAO has recommended the non-usage of Class IA and IB pesticides, a number of these products continue to be used.

It is only from July 1st 2006, after many long years of activist struggles with the company that Bayer, a market leader in pesticides in India, had stopped marketing many of its deadliest pesticides including its Class I products. In earlier studies done by groups like Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, many such products were implicated in acute poisoning hospitalizations and deaths[4].

It is also interesting to note that even though the Central Insecticides Board is currently reviewing several pesticides that have been banned in other countries for their continued use in India, Phorate, Hinosan, Oxydemeton-Methyl, Methyl Parathion etc., are not amongst them!

Given the wide extent of acute poisoning and the related socio-economic problems, we strongly demand the following:

To the government:

- Immediately ban aggressive marketing of pesticides and all type of agro-chemicals including all forms of advertisements and publicity of pesticides along with all incentives given to pesticide dealers’ network.
- Punjab Government should take –up a proactive campaign on ill effects of pesticides.
- acknowledge the threat and that the problem of serious health effects with pesticides exists
- assess the extent of the problem with various adverse health effects of pesticides
- raise awareness about the dangers through well-financed education campaigns
- ensure the dissemination of information on ill effects of pesticides to all users
- fix liability and get compensation to be paid for medical care and economic rehabilitation for all victims – get the industry to pay up; if not, the government to pay

To the Union of India:

- ban all class I a, I b and II pesticides
- modify pesticide risk assessment procedures – bring in the precautionary principle
- promote better and safer agricultural practices including NPM approach and organic farming
- curb aggressive marketing by pesticide industry

To the health sector:

- train and equip health sector staff and infrastructure to identify and deal with such cases
- set up systems for regular and proper monitoring
- Government should fill posts of District Epidemiologist in all districts on priority basis.
- Citizens committee on epidemiological surveillance shall formed under District Epidemiologists to ensure community participation in mitigation and crisis management process

To the Industry:

- pay compensation to all the persons affected
- pro-actively withdraw all Class I and Class II products from the market
- stop aggressive marketing


1. Ample funding should be provided to Punjab Agriculture University to ensure adequate education, research and extension on organic farming
2. Policy formulation as well as agriculture recommendations should be such that they are evolved from the original experiences of organic farmers. PAU should draw from such experiences and not just research in agriculture research station campuses
3. Crops that are suitable to the local natural eco-systems should be promoted and research should be taken up on this basis

For details please contact:
Umendra Dutt
Executive Director
Street-5, Hardayal Nagar,
District-Faridkot, Punjab
Phones: 01635-503415

[1] “Phorate Poisoning of Children and Women in Idukki district of Kerala”, Thanal, Trivandrum, July 2001
[2] “Health surveillance and biological monitoring of pesticide formulators in India”, S K Kashyap, Toxicol Lett. 1986 Oct;33(1-3):107-14
[3] “Pesticide poisoning in south India: opportunities for prevention and improved medical management”, Ch Srinivas Rao et al, Tropical medicine & International health, Volume 10, No. 6, June 2005
[4] “Killing & Poisoning Pests or Human Beings? – acute poisoning of pesticide users through pesticide exposure/inhalation”, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture & MARI, 2005

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