The air we breathe is polluted, the water we drink is contaminated and the food we eat is poisoned. Grim picture? Well, that’s what a growing body of research suggests.

Let’s focus on vegetables, universally accepted as repositories of nutrients. A study of vegetables grown and consumed in and around Delhi, published in April in the Environmental Science Pollution Research journal, found that radish, radish leaves, cauliflower, brinjal and okra contained more than permissible limits of pesticides.

Residues of over 20 organochlorine (OCP) pesticides were found in the produce, say the researchers, from Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environmental Sciences. Direct spray is the most common pathway of contamination, they say.

OCPs belong to a class of compounds called persistent organic pollutants, which can lead to cancer and damage the reproductive system.

A report by the Union agriculture ministry, released in October, says that vegetables, especially green chilli, cauliflower, cabbage, brinjal, tomato and coriander, sold at retail and wholesale outlets across the country had residue levels of pesticides beyond the permissible limit.

The maximum residue level (the amount of residue legally permitted in food) for each vegetable is set in accordance with the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules of 1955.

The National Institute of Nutrition reported similar findings after checks on the brinjal, okra, tomato, chilli and cauliflower sold in the markets of Hyderabad in 2012. Okra was found to be the most contaminated, containing residues of 18 pesticides belonging to the class of organophosphates, which can irreversibly inactivate an enzyme needed for nerve functioning.

Chronic low-dose exposure to OCP pesticides can put people at increased risk of cognitive impairment, according to a Swedish study, which will be published in the April-May edition of the Environment International journal. Low-level exposure to organophosphates, on the other hand, affects the neurological and cognitive function, according to a study published in the online version of the journal, Critical Reviews In Toxicology, in 2012.

Yet, there has been little attempt to check pesticide use, though some consumers, and growers, are now trying to go organic. It’s an uphill battle, however.

Health impact

“Pesticides allow growers to increase the amount of usable food from each crop at the time of harvest. They even increase the shelf life of foods. The problem arises when a farmer starts using the chemicals rampantly in the hope of a better produce," says Sanjeev Lalwani, additional professor (forensic medicine) at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. “The glaring shine on that vibrant, bruise-free brinjal is everything but natural. We don’t realize that we are ingesting so many pesticides. Chronic exposure to residual toxicity is dangerous for the human body, and can lead to diabetes, Alzheimer’s, reproductive problems, even cancer," he adds.

Prenatal exposure to pesticides can also result in mental disorders, behavioural changes, stunted growth and short-term attention span in children, adds Sanjeev Kapoor, director and head of department (internal medicine) at the Fortis Escorts Hospital in Faridabad, adjoining Delhi.

In 2014-15, after noticing sudden autistic regression (speech loss, behavioural changes) in children at its centres in Punjab and Haryana, the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Punjab’s Faridkot district decided to send urine samples of 120 autistic children to Micro Trace Minerals, a laboratory based in Germany. “These changes were happening overnight. We couldn’t understand the cause, so we decided to conduct a study," says Pritpal Singh, the centre’s director. The tests revealed the presence of heavy metals like nickel, lead and copper in the blood. Lead was found to be high in 78% of the children, nickel, in 98%, arsenic, in 83%, aluminium, in 85%, manganese, in 96%, copper, in 22%, iron, in 43%, and cadmium, in 49%. The study findings were released on 13 February.

Chemical farming is playing havoc with the environment, says Singh. “It is not only increasing levels of heavy metals (which are non-biodegradable) in the soil, but also affecting the food chain, interfering with the process of detoxification in nature by killing microbes and other forms of life," he adds.

If there is ample evidence to suggest that the rampant use of pesticides is harmful, then why is this being allowed to continue? “Poor awareness among farmers and the lackadaisical approach of the government," says G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. He adds: “Many pesticides that are banned globally, like mancozeb, DDT and captan, are still being used in India because of ineffective implementation of regulations. They are not even cheap, but the way they are advertised, farmers believe they will get good produce only if they use chemicals."

So what’s the way out?

Going organic

You could try to opt for organic food which, by definition, contains no chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides. But then there are no regulations in India to determine whether products branded “organic" are really organic. “You can buy products from small farmers or farmer organizations you think are trustworthy. Trust is key," says Ramanjaneyulu.

Across India, especially in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune, small organic-food outlets and farmers’ markets are mushrooming. “Yes, their products are 10-15% costlier than the commonly available counterparts because of the storage cost, but at least what you get is not contaminated," says Ramanjaneyulu. “Chemicals used in farming have a short life, while the organic approach is for the long haul. The government needs to improve the regulatory system and make efforts to popularize the non-chemical approach," he adds.

You can even set up your own little kitchen garden. True, it can be time-consuming, considering our busy lives, but imagine the joy of plucking chemical-free coriander from your garden for garnishing that tomato soup, or dal. “Also, kitchen gardening has been proved to ease stress, keep you limber, even improve mental health. Instead of chemicals, there are many home-made options to get rid of pests—from pepper, tobacco and chrysanthemums to oranges. But the question is: Is the water to cultivate your organic vegetables clean?" asks Dr Kapoor.

If only the answer to that were simple.

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