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Testing times for 'killer' chemicals

EARTH WATCH | Bharati Chaturvedi

March 22, 2005

What do baby oil and vultures have in common? It's an easy one if you've been reading the papers. Both contain, literally, chemicals that were not tested for their wider effects.

Look at it this way. Baby oil, it turns out, has paraffin — which is not a product specially recommended for babies.

Vultures, says a study by Lindsay Oaks from the Washington State University, have declined by over 95 per cent in Pakistan, India and Nepal. And 85 per cent of the 259 vultures tested suffered from visceral gout and renal failure, caused by diclofenac — a chemical used in cattle to handle pain. The three-year study shows that the Oriental White Backed, Long Billed and Slender Billed Vultures have been the most severely impacted. But really, that's not the point. The point is much more basic.

Why are there so many untested chemicals lurking around us? Since World War II, of the almost 100,000 chemicals produced, less than 5,000 have been tested. Of these, not all have been tested adequately.

For instance, it would take up more resources than the government has to test one lakh chemicals. And besides, why should the state be always responsibile? It would be way more sensible if the onus were on the manufacturer to prove to the government and the public that the chemicals being used are not toxic.

Sensitive cultures Some people bear the brunt of environmental contamination more than others. In Delhi, for example, residents have more DDT in their fat than in any other part of the country.

In the Arctic, indigenous people are livid that their environment has been tested for high levels of lindane, an organo-chlorine pesticide. One of the reasons for this is that lindane travels and accumulates in the eco-system — including in food like salmon and whale meat, the staple diet there. A significant contribution could be from the rest of the US, where lindane is used for agricultural purposes.

One of the arguments people in the region put forth is that lindane-rich meat is not simply a question of poor food quality. It is actually a threat to an entire culture, linked with the resources traditionally available in a cold and harsh climate.

© HT Media Ltd. 2004


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