release of our study on pesticide residues in bottled water,
an experienced science journalist called to recheck something
that was bothering him: was it really true that the government
had not laid down quantified standards for pesticide residues
in drinking water, let alone packaged drinking water, he kept
asking. Clearly, he was used to hearing from the pompous and
bombastic science establishment of our country.
It was true. And shameful. What shocked us was not that we
found high levels of pesticide residues in bottled water, but
that the toxic and deadly residues were legal — blessed by the
incompetent and indifferent regulator.
The standards for drinking water set by the Bureau of
Indian Standards (BIS) say that residues should be “absent”
and in the case of packaged drinking water — set more recently
— the standards cryptically say that pesticide residues should
be “below detectable limits”.
But as we explain, the underlying principle is that if you
don’t look for something, you will not find it. So, the method
of detection, specified by the regulator, uses a less
sensitive equipment, which would not be able to detect
residues, unless in high quantities.
The response, from media and public, has been incredible.
The story captured headlines. Sales of bottled water dropped.
The government, not ordinarily known for its agility, ordered
the revision of standards and methodology to meet the best in
the world. We can all pat ourselves for work well done.
But not yet. Not for long. The challenge is just beginning
to unfold. Firstly, devastatingly, we found the pesticide in
bottled water, because we found high levels of pesticide in
the water that companies were packaging. We found pesticide
contamination in tap, river and groundwater around Mumbai and
How will we even begin to clean up the horrendous poison,
seeping into our lifeline — our water? Even if the packaged
water industry is forced to clean up its act and behave
responsibly, what will millions and millions, who drink this
water do? What is their option?
Pesticide residues are an unfair health risk. Multiple
residues of the substances we found — lindane, DDT or
chlorpyrifos — are unacceptable. Long-term exposure will be
deadly. But getting rid of tiny residues at a large scale may
not be easy or cheap.
A city as rich as New York has found that it is cheaper to
pay farmers living in the watersheds of the city not to use
pesticides, than to invest in equipment to clean it up. The
city funds a watershed agricultural programme in Catskills —
upstream of the city — so that farmers can change their
practices and use much less amounts of pesticides.
We, on the other hand, push farmers to use greater and
greater amounts of unnecessary pesticides and insecticides.
What can we do to regulate and minimise the use of these
toxins, without jeopardising agricultural productivity? A lot,
I am sure, if we put our minds to it.
We can find ways of reducing use of pesticides, move to far
more benign substances — with new research and innovation —
and move towards valuing the labour of farmers so that they
can make more, even if they produce less with less intensive
Secondly, there is the question of regulation. As yet, we
know so little about the nature of pesticides being registered
or deregistered in the country. We have to remember that the
nature of the business is that a toxic substance is replaced
with another, even more lethal substance.
This is exactly how global business works. So, if DDT is
found to be noxious — and incidentally its patent runs out as
well — companies find it much more profitable to “substitute”
it with an alternative; DDT in another name, in another place.
Thirdly, there is a question of science. How much pesticide
exposure is safe needs to be established for all products we
consume. As yet, much like bottled water, the standards are
ridiculously lax. Built on the premise that pesticides are
good for health and progress.
Instead, scientists need to urgently justify each
quantified pesticide residue standard with data on long-term
research on chronic health impacts and risks. Urgently.
We have to remember that even if the rich world can run its
economies by making money first out of producing toxins and
then out of producing its alternative toxins or clean up
technologies, we cannot afford it.
The vast millions in our world cannot afford this farce of
development. It will be exorbitant and it will be deadly. The
cycle of poison must be stopped. There is no other way for us.
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