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Wednesday, February 19, 2003


The cycle of poison
Not just bottled water, pesticide residues contaminate our drinking water too

Sunita Narain
Published : February 18, 2003

After the 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 Delhi.

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 agriculture.

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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