Bangalore: Mohammed Asheel, assistant nodal officer of the Kerala government’s endosulfan rehabilitation programme, recalls his initial scepticism at the reported effects of the fertilizer in Kasargod, the northernmost district of Kerala.
“I found it difficult to believe that 158 different diseases were caused by one chemical like endosulfan,” said Asheel, a doctor who coordinated relief work in Kasargod in 2010, at a press conference held by a Kannada newspaper in Bangalore in March this year. “But when I further studied the pesticide, I realized the mechanisms causing diseases were well documented.”
Controversial chemical: A file photo of a farmer spraying insecticide in his field. India is the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan.
Asheel played a role in the culmination of a sequence of events that began with a 2002 study carried out by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, suggesting that misuse of endosulfan through aerial spraying over the cashew estates of Kasargod may have caused a range of genetic, reproductive and developmental disorders. A follow-up study in 2003 by the Kerala government also pointed the finger at endosulfan. The state banned the pesticide that year.
Neighbouring Karnataka has now imposed a 60-day ban after similar health effects were reported in the district of Dakshina Kannada. Environmental groups are welcoming the ban, but asking why there isn’t a nationwide one.
India is the supplier of 70% of the world’s endosulfan needs—a market valued at $300 million (Rs 1,340 crore). Out of the 9,000 tonnes India produces every year, half is bought by the country’s 75 million farmers, making it the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan.
Much of it is used by farmers with small and marginal holdings, because endosulfan is cheap—Rs 286 per kg—and has a broad spectrum of effects. Alternatives such as flubendiamine and imidacloprid cost Rs 13,800 and Rs 2,229 per kg, respectively. Endosulfan is sprayed on all major crops such as vegetables, cotton, pulses and rice to combat pests such as whitefly, leafhoppers, aphids and cabbage worms, without harming insects such as bees, which help in pollination. “This is one of the safest insecticides for pollinators,” said A.K. Chakravarthy, entomology department head at Bangalore’s University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS).
While pesticide manufacturers dispute the evidence on endosulfan’s safety, as many as 70 countries, including the US, Australia, Brazil and 27 European Union (EU) members have restricted its use, up from 17 in 2000.
The pressure on endosulfan is mounting. In 2010, the persistent organic pollutant review committee under the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty to eliminate the usage of toxic chemicals, nominated endosulfan for inclusion in a global ban list. Discussions on this will happen in April, when the Stockholm Convention meets again.
The EU is pushing for a ban, with countries such as India resisting.
“Twenty-seven of the countries with bans are European—they act as a major bloc. Now they have stopped importing cocoa from Africa, resulting in bans in 21 African countries which depend on EU as an export market,” said R. Hariharan, chairman of the International Stewardship Centre (ISC), a non-governmental organization that has observer status at the convention, and is working to prevent the ban.
Under the Stockholm Convention, a chemical that is sought to be banned has to be persistent in the environment, bioaccumulative, capable of long-range transport and undermines human health.
Persistence in environment refers to how fast the chemical degrades, as measured by its half-life—the time taken for it to decay to 50% of its size. The convention considers a half-life greater than 183 days as persistent, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of 1,336 days under aerobic conditions for endosulfan puts it in the highly-persistent territory. In tropical conditions, though, the half-life is shorter at 161-385 days.
Bioaccumulative means the chemical increases in concentration in the food chain with time.
“Endosulfan belongs to the organochloride group. Chemicals in this group, like the banned DDT, are known to be bioaccumulative,” said P.K. Shetty, researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Sciences at Bangalore’s Indian Indian Institute for Science. “Endosulfan can get into the food chain in many ways—from algae, into fish, into humans. Or it can be consumed by humans through contaminated wheat or fruit.”
Studies have demonstrated long-range environmental transport of endosulfan as well. A 2005 study carried out in the Arctic region, and published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, detected elevated levels of endosulfan, whereas levels of banned chemicals like DDT were falling. This shows it travelled beyond the immediate area of usage. The same study showed a threefold increase in concentration of the chemical in the blubber of Beluga whales. According to a fact sheet issued by the Pesticide Action Network of Europe, “Endosulfan is now found extensively...in remote ecosystems such as Arctic, Antarctic, Great Lakes, Canadian Rockies, Costa Rican rainforests, Alps and Himalayas.”
Hariharan disputes the findings.
“Firstly, there are significant scientific gaps (in endosulfan research). I can point you to other studies that show that the half-life of endosulfan in tropical climates like India is far shorter,” he said. “There is only one Canadian study that shows a half-life greater than 180 days and it cannot be applied to India given the vastly different climate. We need data that is representative of the region, but parties like the EU tend to cherry pick data.”
Among the research papers he points to is a 1997 study carried out in Haryana and published in the peer-reviewed Pesticide Journal, which establishes endosulfan’s half-life in soil at 39-42 days.
Organizations such as ISC and the Crop Care Federation of India (an association of pesticide manufacturers) say any research carried out by the EU and others like it would be biased. “Most reports have an agenda,” said Anil J. Kakkar, director of the Indian Crop Care Federation and vice-president (marketing) at Excel Crop Care Ltd, one of the three companies in India that manufacture the active ingredient of endosulfan. “Endosulfan is now off patent and brings in far lower margins. So they want to push substitutes which offer greater premiums.”
The Indian representatives at the Stockholm Convention are in discussions with various ministries, including agriculture, health and chemicals, to finalize the stance for the April meeting. Rajiv Gauba, joint secretary in the ministry of environment and forests, who represents India at the convention, says he cannot comment on what the country’s position is going to be unless the discussions are completed. The agriculture ministry didn’t respond to queries from Mint.
In a 22 February Parliament session, though, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar argued that farmers in several states had been using endosulfan with good results and that the four expert committees set up since 1991 had all recommended its continued use. He said the problems in Kerala were due to improper usage.
Hariharan of ISC said there are no viable alternatives to endosulfan in a country like India. “The convention initially claimed that there were nearly 100 alternatives. But after screening, only six were found to have properties such as being pollinator-friendly and non-toxic,” he said. “Then there is the question of affordability, because these are all patented products, unlike endosulfan.”
Government indecision stems from the lack of scientific consensus. Shetty said there is no need for further evidence.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the long-term impact of any chemical. Even if endosulfan is not yet a proven carcinogenic, there may multiple other health effects that may go undetected because nobody has concertedly researched usage in India,” he said. “Mild symptoms like headache will go unreported, while cases of acute poisoning need an India-wide study. When 70 countries have already banned it, we can afford to follow suit.”
There have been isolated reports of ill effects from cotton farmers in Maharashtra in the 1980s and cashewnut plantations in Orissa in the 1990s as well as parts of Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, pointing to the toxic effects of endosulfan.
“The reason Kerala shot into prominence was because the impact was so widespread. About 10,000 people over 4,500 hectares were affected,” said C. Jayakumar, a sociologist from Kerala who has been studying the issue in Kasargod since 1999. The improper use of pesticides is another point of debate in the row. “India did not have the ultra low-volume formulation suitable for aerial spraying (in Kasargod),” Chakravarthy of UAS said. “Instead, the formulation meant for knapsack sprayers and hydraulic sprayers was used, which had a higher concentration of the chemical. Humans were obviously going to be affected badly.”
Kasargod has a hilly terrain with numerous water bodies that weren’t covered up during the spraying, leading to the water getting contaminated. The spraying was carried out for more than a decade without checking build-up in the soil or being rotated with other chemicals.
“These are compounds a company manufactures under controlled conditions with handlers wearing gloves, etc.,” he said. “Then the product is suddenly passed on to illiterate end users without any instructions.”
Shetty, a proponent of pesticide stewardship—or its proper, controlled use—points out that developed countries use 80% of all pesticides and yet have the fewest instances of mortality and disease related to the chemicals. He belongs to the group that wants manufacturers to educate farmers on proper use.
“In 2000, the manufacturers hadn’t suggested that a different formulation was needed for aerial spraying. Only now, in retrospect, has the issue come up,” Jayakumar said.
Hariharan takes a different view.
“It is the regulator who decides pesticide usage. Manufacturers cannot be held fully liable. Also, even if the proper guidelines weren’t followed, does it justify a complete ban?”