Monday, October 5, 2009

A Doctor’s perspective to Environmental Health Crisis in Punjab

Urgent Need to Understand and Intervene

Dr Amar Singh Azad

Though I am basically a Community Medicine person, but today I am here as a representative of Environmental Health Action Group (EHAG), which is a group of activist doctors of Punjab, headed by Dr. GPI Singh Professor and Head of Community Medicine Department, Dayanand Medical College Ludhiana. EHAG is an affiliate organization of a larger group of activists named Kheti Virasat Mission headed by Sh. Umendra Dutt with its head quarter at Jaitu. Our group (EHAG) tries to understand the health scenario of our country in general and our state in particular. After making an understanding we try to intervene as per our strength and capabilities. Environmental Health Action Group has evolved a committed understanding that Punjab is amidst a serious Environmental Health Crisis. Our people are paying a heavy price of this crisis in the form of increased morbidity, high premature mortality and a heavy economic cost in addition to the social and emotional consequences which are difficult to measure.

Environmental health comprises various aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined by physical, chemical, biological, social, and psychosocial factors in the natural environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing, correcting, controlling, and preventing those factors in the environment that can potentially affect adversely the health of present and future generations. Nutrition, soil contamination, water pollution, air pollution, safe drinking water, noise pollution, light pollution, waste control, and public health are integral aspects of environmental health.

In the light of above definition of environmental health, Punjab is amidst a serious environmental health crisis. There are multiple evidences to prove that. Though there is not much of research but whatever is there it is enough to show that in Punjab, water and soil are having high contents of environmental toxins. Analysis of living beings-plants, animals and humans for the levels of these toxins also shows beyond doubt that their bodies are having high concentrations of these toxins. These toxins include the ones being used for chemical agriculture-pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers; those being added by the thermal power plants and other types of dirty and polluting industry through their wastes. For example waste water from large number of industries is being thrown untreated into the natural water bodies like rivers, seasonal drains, canals and ground water-heavy metals, pesticides, solvents and large number of other highly toxic chemicals; some toxic chemicals are being brought up through the deep ground water suction being done on a large scale-fluorides and arsenic etc. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are the latest addition to this list and perhaps the most dangerous type of pollution which has the potential of destroying the whole eco system apart from the ill health caused by them.

It is well known that water bodies of Punjab are highly polluted with deadly poisons. Whole of Malwa belt of Punjab and large areas of Rajasthan are getting their water (including drinking water because ground water has high TDS and is not fit for drinking) supply through a system of canals which originates from Hari-Ke-Pattan, the meeting point of two rivers Satluj and Beas. Before this meeting point huge amounts of untreated water from sewers and large number of industries (including the notorious Budha Nala of Ludhiana) is thrown into the Satluj and Beas. There are large numbers of studies by PPCB indicating the high levels of dangerous chemicals in the water flowing in Budha Nalah. The study by PGI Chandidarh about the quality of water flowing in the tributaries of Satluj and Beas shows the similar results. It is a well known fact that by the time water reaches Hari-Ke-Pattan it is full of dangerous chemicals including heavy loads of pesticides, nitrates and heavy metals which are notorious for being not easily biodegradable and thus is beyond the capacity of nature’s cleansing process. Not only is that, these chemicals are also beyond the filtering capacity of type of filters being used by our water works.

This water is being used by huge population of Punjab and Rajasthan for irrigation, cattle and humans for drinking and other house hold purposes. The life giving qualities of water, soil and air in Punjab are fast deteriorating because of the overload of highly poisonous chemicals. It is well recognized fact now that qualities of drinking water are also fast declining in Punjab. People are being forced to purchase costly filters and the vast majorities which can’t afford to buy filters are forced to travel, to bring the drinking water of at least tolerable limit, from hand pumps installed on the banks of canals.

The similar situation prevails in case of Ghaggar River whose water is known to be full of dangerous chemicals from Mohali, Dera basi and Sub- Himalayan belt where large number of polluting industries are located. Ghaggar water is used directly for irrigation along its course and along its draining tributaries in large areas of Punjab and Haryana. A study of vegetables grown on the banks of Ghaggar undertaken by the Thapar Institute of Technology has shown high levels of dangerous chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals in these vegetables.

It is a well known fact that vegetables in Punjab (for example Malerkotla) are being grown with very high doses of cock tails of highly dangerous chemicals (much beyond the recommendations of any expert) and are being sold on the same day or next day (against all recommendations) and horrible fact is that they are being dipped in the solutions of chemicals before selling to improve their outlook

The above facts have been clearly demonstrated by the various studies conducted by Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), PGI Chandigarh, Thapar Institute of Engineering, Punjab Agriculture University Ludhiana and many other institutions. PAU has recently acknowledged that ground water in Punjab is highly contaminated with Nitrates (from chemical fertilizers) and Nitrates are highly carcinogenic. The University has also publicly accepted that pesticides are highly toxic and so they want to replace it with GMOs. A study done by the Community Medicine Department of PGI Chandigarh has clearly shown that surface water, ground water, plants and animal and human tissues have been tested to contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals including highly dangerous pesticides and heavy metals.

We must remember that environment is one and we share it with plants and animals. Our natural resources-soil, water and air are common heritage of all living beings and not only humans. We consume plants and animals in the form of food. So we consume soil, water and air directly as well as through plants and animals. Presence of any toxin in the soil, water and air will reach our body-directly as well as indirectly-but they are bound to reach. Certain toxins are more notorious e.g. pesticides, nitrates, fluorides and heavy metals etc. because of two reasons-they are not easily biodegradable (their half life is very long) and there is bio accumulation and biomagnifications as they pass through the food chain. GMOs are also very dangerous because once added to the environment they will go on multiplying and we can’t recall them back.

Most dangerous poisons in our environment are—pesticides, chemical fertilizers, heavy metals, other industrial wastes and fossil fuels. It has been proved now that our soil, water and air contain large no. of these poisonous substances much beyond the safe levels. All living beings consume air, water and soil—so these enter into our food chain and go on harming at each level in this chain. As a result all the species of living beings have been intoxicated leading to large scale sickness and killings. Obviously this model of development is extremely violent model.







Many studies have shown that the levels of highly poisonous pesticides and other chemicals including heavy metals are much beyond the safe limits in the bodies of human beings as well as other species of living beings (animals and plants) and life giving basic elements of nature such as soil, water and air. Pesticides, Herbicides, Nitrates and Heavy Metals are known Immunotoxic, Neurotoxins, Hormonal Disruptors, carcinogenic, mutagenic, foeto toxic, embryo toxic and teratogenic. There are ample numbers of scientific studies throughout the world which prove these toxic effects. All these known toxic effects are easily and grossly visible in Punjab-on animal as well as human health.

Large number of species of living beings is suffering from poisoned environment and food chain. Large numbers of the species are fast declining in number and even getting extinguished. This is truer about the carnivorous animals because of the well known phenomenon of bio-accumulation and bio-magnification in the food chain. Birds are dying en masse (this is so obvious that every body is noting that)-Vultures, eagles, falcons, owls, crows, sparrows and many others are on the verge of extinction. For example it is a well quoted figure that 7000 species out of about 10000 species of sparrows are already extinct or are at the verge of extinction. The honey bees, earth worms, glow worms and thousands of species of other small animals of very high ecological significance are also on the verge of extinction. There are large numbers of studies which prove that bees are being extinguished because of pesticides.


Our cattle have become more prone to diseases and die easily as compared to a time 20 years back. Viral Diseases are on the rise in plants, animals and humans. It is a general observation of the cattle breeders and veterinarians that the cattle fall sick very easily and die very quickly. Similarly it is a well known observation that cattle don’t get pregnant easily and when they do get pregnant they abort very frequently. There is a high prevalence of cancers in the cattle.

Following types of diseases are prevalent in Punjab in epidemic proportions:-

1. Communicable Diseases, particularly Viral Diseases.

2. Non-Communicable Diseases because of Internal/ Physiological weakness-e.g. Diabetes Mellitus, Hypertension and Cardio vascular disorders etc.

3. Non-Communicable Diseases because of Environmental Toxins-e.g. Cancers, Congenital Malformations and Reproductive Disorders etc.

4. Mental Ill health including violence of all types, crimes, accidents and addictions etc.

All these diseases are prevalent in Punjab on an epidemic proportion and this has happened within the last twenty to thirty years. Their prevalence is much higher than other states where chemical load is less. All these diseases are interconnected to each other and are directly or indirectly the result of chemical/ industrial agriculture (through acute and chronic toxicity and through deficiency of nutrients), environmental pollution (caused mainly by the industry and burning of fossil fuels), highly competitive and stressful life style and fast destruction of social and cultural value system etc.

Following aspects of ill health are being observed by the doctors and others concerned with human health:-

1. Immunity of the Punjabis is fast decreasing, which is evident from the rise in the prevalence and severity of all infectious diseases particularly the viral diseases. The repeated episodes of common cold, particularly in the children are one such example. Amongst other infectious and contagious diseases scabies coming as epidemic of unprecedented magnitude is another very glaring example during the recent years. Chicken Pox has become much more prevalent than before. Similarly other disease of known viral etiology such as -Herpes Zoster, Herpes Simplex, Multiple Warts, Venereal Warts, Viral Fevers and Fungal Infections have become more prevalent. The newer viral diseases such as Hepatitis-B, C and E; HIV, Bird Flu, SARS, Dengue Fever and Chikun Gunia etc. are becoming more common and more severe day by day. Some of these are so dangerous that they are capable of surpassing the old notorious epidemics of Plague and Small Pox etc.

It is possible that these viruses are not new at all. They have become more and more pathogenic because of the decreased herd immunity only. Possibly earlier these viruses were non-pathogenic or less pathogenic to humans but because of the reduced herd immunity they have become more pathogenic/ virulent in nature. The bacterial infections are becoming resistant to antibiotics day by day. The emergence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis on a large scale and rising prevalence of hospital infections may also indicate the falling levels of immunity of human beings. The decreasing immunity may be the result of multiple reasons main being-the increasing levels of environmental toxins in general and fast rising pesticides’ levels in particular, falling levels of micronutrients in the soil and thus in the food, sedentary and stressful life style etc. etc.

2. There is definite evidence of rise in Genetic Mutations (clearly proved by the study by Dr. Thakur of PGI Chandigarh) increasing prevalence of cancers of all types and congenital malformations (study done by Dr. Thakur of PGI Chandigarh and Dr. Kabra of Jaipur). Such reports coming from Malwa region of Punjab are quite disturbing (study by Dr. Thakur of PGI Chandigarh shows the cancer prevalence twice as high as other regions of Punjab). This again may be due to over-chemicalisation of soil, water and air more so in the Cotton Belt of Malwa because of use of more pesticides on the cotton. The pesticides, nitrates and heavy metals are notorious for causing cancers as well as congenital malformations. Dr Kabra is saying openly that Punjab is having an epidemic of Congenital Malformations and it will have to open many more Pingalwaras to cope with long term effects of this epidemic.

  1. The marked increase in the prevalence of all types of non-infectious and degenerative disorders including fast declining parameters of reproductive health in male (declining sperm counts and motility, rising number of childless couples, delayed puberty in males, development of breast nodule in boys and rising prevalence of Erectile Dysfunctions etc.)as well as female (early puberty in females, early development of breast nodule, high prevalence of anovulatry cycles and Ovarian Cysts, early menopause and other menstrual irregularities, rise in the prevalence of primary and secondary sterility etc.) may again be due the damage to DNA and disturbed physiology of various organs of the body caused by chronic poisoning and decreasing levels of micronutrients in the soil.
There are number of studies which have shown that pesticides cause drastic fall in sperm count, motility and semen parameters. The marked increase in the number of Childless Couples in Punjab is very obvious. It is general observation that the onset of puberty in females has come down by two years and has gone up by two years in males

There are studies available now which indicate that in Type-II Diabetes Mellitus, the resistance of tissues to Insulin may be due to Chronic Toxicity of Pesticides rather than a simple Life Style disease.

Even in the fast increasing mental disorders, addictions, accidents and violence these slow poisons may be playing contributory role because these chemicals are known to weaken the nervous system and lower the threshold of stress tolerance.

The pesticides and other poisonous chemicals are known to cause DNA mutations particularly during the intrauterine phase and early childhood. The damaged DNA is transmitted to the future generations. These chemicals have also earned the notoriety of being hormonal disrupters.

4. These toxins are known Neuro-toxins. To site only one example-the prevalence of Mental Retardation or so called Special children including Autism has increased from one in forty thousands, fifty years back to one in forty now in Punjab. A study done by Greenpeace India in six states including Punjab (Poisoned by Pesticides-2003) has shown direct correlation of Mental Retardation to Chronic Pesticide poisoning.

“In all the abilities that the children were tested for, children in the study locations are remarkably lower in their abilities when compared to children in the less exposed areas. This is strikingly so when it comes to 4-5 year old children, where other influencing factors may not play much of a role as yet[i], especially when it comes to motor abilities. This is a case of seemingly normal-looking children, faring worse in their development when compared to children less exposed to pesticides.

  1. Genetically Modified Crops are coming as a new threat to the eco system and to the health of humans and animals
Genetic Engineering (GE) of agricultural crops affects all of us as it compromises the very safety of the food that we consume. Further, it is also one more ‘treadmill technology’ like chemical pesticides which will only push millions of Indian farmers into deeper agrarian distress. GE in fact has very many similarities with chemical pesticides – promoted by the same companies, posing environmental, and health, socio-political and economic hazards. Large numbers of countries have refused to adapt genetic engineering in their farming and foods, even after nearly fifteen years of the first GE crop being released in the USA, for very sound reasons. It has been found that Genetic Engineering allows big multi-national companies to take over our food chain and change it in unpredictable ways to the point that farmer and consumer rights are badly trampled upon. Consumers have no way of knowing what they are eating and how safe or nutritious their food is, anymore. In India, six years after Bt Cotton was allowed to come into the country, the number of farmer suicides in Vidarbha is a mute witness to whether this technology actually holds promise for our farmers. This year, we are standing on the verge of the first food crop being released in India – of Bt Brinjal. This is a genetically engineered vegetable which makes the plant produce a toxin within itself to kill certain insects which feed on it.

It has to be remembered here that it is the interaction of human beings with nature, with careful breeding and selection that has resulted in a vast variety of cultivated and uncultivated foods that are available to us today with a variety of nutritional compositions. More importantly, this food has been made safe by careful work over centuries. GE however has the potential to make food that is safe to become unsafe. We, the aware human beings, more so the doctors are always thinking, “Where are the roots of the diseases?” But in traditional medical education we are taught about only the immediate causes. We are thinking one symptom to be the cause of other symptom. We are not trained to go deep into the root causes. But as scientific minds we must go deep to the root causes. Few super rich of the world are controlling all the economic activities in the world. They are organizing these activities in such a fashion that the total orientation is to increase their profits and multiply their personal wealth, rather than welfare of all humans, other living beings and nature at large. When questioned about the need of these toxic substances, they say it is the price of modernization, of generating richness. But the strangest part is they have never tried the alternatives which don’t require these poisons. Every thing is weighed in terms of money and profits. The questions of sustainability, safety, ecology, nature and natural laws have been thrown to the winds. The alternatives which were well known to our ancestors and have been developed to full fledged successful models are capable to give much better productivity, prosperity to the farmers, poison free food to the people, are sustainable, save the biodiversity and are nature friendly and non violent in nature. But these alternatives are being opposed tooth and nail by the vested interests because these don’t bring those super profits.
Any action to save Punjab from ecological catastrophe and environmental health crisis is a great service to fellow countrymen. It would be a service to our Motherland, Humanity and God and more over it is as sacred as any worship. Let us join heads and hands to restore the health, happiness and glory to our dear Punjab and subsequently our motherland India.