At Down To Earth (DTE) we believe that truth withheld is truth denied. Fresh evidence suggests a web of lies and deceit was weaved to declare that the pesticide endosulfan is not responsible for the horrendous mutations and ailments that many in the villages of Kerala's Kasaragod district are suffering from. These villagers, living in the shadow of cashew plantations, have been exposed to the toxin which was sprayed aerially for more than two decades. But industry maintains that the health problems are not related to the pesticide. It claims the culprit is anything but endosulfan. With the controversy embroiling the organochlorine pesticide raging, in 2002, the Union government set up an expert group -- the O P Dubey Committee -- to determine if it had indeed caused the health problems prevalent in the area. The panel was also meant to recommend whether the application of the pesticide should be allowed in the country. Its report, finalised and submitted in early 2003, concluded: "There is no link between the use of endosulfan in PCK (Plantation Corporation of Kerala) plantations and health problems reported from Padre (the worst affected village)." The pesticide industry was vindicated and the matter was closed.
But the story does not end here. DTE has access to information, which shows how the report of the Dubey committee was manipulated. How evidence was suppressed. And worse, how facts were distorted and half-truths (even full lies) reported in this intensely scientific discourse. These are decisions that concern not just the scientific integrity of our institutions but, much more importantly, the suffering people of Padre village. This story is in public interest. It is for the people of Padre and voiceless others suffering similar injustices.
The results of the three institutions differed. The NIOH had detected the pesticide's residues in human blood samples that it collected from the affected area in September-October 2001. The institute found residues of alpha and beta endosulfan -- isomers of endosulfan -- in soil, water as well as human blood samples, implying that the pesticide persisted in the environment. NIOH, which also conducted studies on control village populations (where people had not been exposed to aerial sprays) concluded that "endosulfan was a causative factor" for the health problems. It recommended that extensive epidemiological studies be conducted in surrounding affected areas and relief be provided to the affected people.
The Dubey panel summarily rubbished the NIOH study. Why? Because the committee observed: "The findings of the NIOH study are not in conformity with the known and accepted properties, chemistry and toxicology of endosulfan." So the committee preferred to rely on the residue analysis conducted by FIPPAT. The institute had collected samples from Padre before NIOH (between March and May in 2001), but claimed that it did not find any endosulfan residues in human blood and only negligible amounts of the pesticide in the environment. It also asserted that there were no alpha and beta residues in its samples. These findings of FIPPAT were obviously in conformity with the known 'sound' principles of 'established science'.
But what if we tell you that not only did FIPPAT suppress information, it fudged its calculations as well? DTE is in possession of a copy of the institute's report, dated June 4, 2001. The report, submitted to the PCK, shows that FIPPAT had actually detected endosulfan residues in human blood samples. It, however, chose not to disclose the finding. The institute underreported the levels of residues found in the environment, too. Levels of Endosulfan found are low: FIPPAT has underreported the amount of residues found in many leaf samples (see table: Calculated moves). For instance, it reports that there are less than 0.001 ppm of residues in leaf sample code L-17. When FIPPAT's standard is applied using the actual data, it is found that the sample contains 0.479 ppm of total endosulfan residue. A similar trend has been detected in some of FIPPAT's soil samples as well.
On examining all documents, DTE finds that the queries raised by the industry and repeated by Dubey have been answered by the NIOH in official correspondence and deliberations. For instance, at the second meeting of the expert group on October 9, 2002 (the minutes of which are in the possession of DTE), Dubey made a presentation to the committee on what he calls "clarifications needed from NIOH". At the meeting held on January 31, 2003, NIOH presented a point-by-point clarification for each listed issue. However, the Dubey committee's final report chooses to consider what was asked, rather than what was replied. It says: "The conclusions drawn by NIOH cannot be used to guide our findings and recommendations." And the industry spokesperson writes to DTE saying: "The report by NIOH is fundamentally flawed and is founded on faulty hypothesis." Why? What are these key scientific issues?
One of the doubts pertains to the selection of the control village -- Meenja Panchayat. According to the NIOH, the key reason for selecting Meenja was because there had never been any aerial spray of endosulfan in the vicinity of this village. Therefore, while its proximity to Padre would minimise the various confounding variables -- lifestyle, diet, socio-economic status -- it would protect information about populations which are not exposed to the extensive effects of aerial spraying of pesticides. Furthermore, as small rivers separate Meenja from Padre, the possibility of cross-contamination of water sources is excluded, notes the NIOH report.
It is important to realise the extent of the exposure of Padre village, located just 4 km from the cashew nut plantations. Twice a year for the past 20 years, people were exposed to pesticide spraying. The point that is missed is that the serum endosulfan residue levels were several times higher in the study (Padre) village as compared to the control village. This clearly means that this population is far more exposed.
Another query that was put to the NIOH related to its detecting alpha endosulfan in the blood samples drawn 10 months after the last spraying. Similarly, how did it detect the isomer in the environment -- soil and water -- samples? Endosulfan, says the industry, does not persist in the environment, and in human bodies it converts into endosulfan sulphate. NIOH explains that in its view the cessation of aerial spraying does not necessarily mean end of exposure. This is simply because endosulfan is persistent in the surrounding environment. For instance, it has a very long half-life in soil.
The peculiar topography of the region also leaves the area more exposed. The spraying was done in the hilly areas adjoining the village. The satellite mapping of the area, done by the Regional Remote Sensing Service Centre of the Department of Space, found that the water streams originate in the cashew plantations and flow into the valley, where the people live. So, for example, the Padre village micro-watershed has 12 streams originating from the plantations in the hills above. Pesticide contamination travels through the water and then gets deposited in soil and underground water sources (see box: How pesticides move). The remote sensing report confirms this saying: "The pollutants brought down through runoff or seepage tend to get accumulated in the soils. The crops cultivated on these soils may act as stores through which the toxicant gets entry into the target organisms (including humans)."
NIOH found that the levels of endosulfan residues in water were much lower than those in human blood. How, ask Dubey and the industry, is this possible as it would mean that a person would have to drink huge quantities of water to contain these levels? NIOH contends that this would assume that the endosulfan exposure occurs only through water. It is clear from all literature that pesticide exposure occurs through a variety of mediums, including food grown on contaminated soil as well as milk of animals which consume water and feed that are similarly contaminated. It is also clear from all the studies (including FIPPAT's) that investigators found endosulfan in soil and vegetation in the vicinity of the villages.
The industry is also sceptical about how the chemical reached Padre village -- located about 4 km from the plantation. Again, NIOH points to the topography of the area, with streams and a valley where people live. For instance, the Kerala Agricultural University report says that it found high levels of endosulfan in soil within the plantations (3,815 ppb), 55 ppb in the soils in mid-hills and 315 ppb in the sediment of the pond water located in the house of a person living in the valley. This shows the downward movement and persistence of endosulfan.
The FIPPAT study (in its corrected form) would also point to contamination of the soil, leaf and blood samples with alpha endosulfan. This implies widespread and deadly poisoning. The NIOH study found that residue concentrations were higher in the pond sediments as compared to the filtrate -- implying that the movement of endosulfan would be through runoff water, which then binds with soil particles. Since this water is then used for irrigation, there is a likelihood of chronic exposure through food.
Nobody can deny that the people of Padre are suffering (see: There is no justice). There is a high incidence of disorders of the central nervous system -- cerebral palsy, retardation of mental and/or physical growth, epilepsy among children -- congenital anomalies, cancer and reproductive disorders. What is the cause of their terrible sickness? This is the key question that needs to be asked.
The industry cites many possible reasons for these "strange diseases" -- from inbreeding, to background radiation, to just poor nutritional levels. The contention of NIOH, which hurts industry, is that there is a significantly higher prevalence of neurobehavioural disorders, congenital malformations in females and abnormalities related to the male reproductive system in Padre samples as compared to the reference group studied in Meenja. NIOH goes on to say that after studying various aetiological factors responsible for health problems, it found that the only key difference between the two groups was aerial spraying of endosulfan.
The industry argues that these diseases are not similar to the mechanism of toxicity of endosulfan, that is, it cannot be the cause of such disorders. But that is not correct. Research by DTE shows that there are many toxicity studies, conducted on laboratory animals, which find that exposure to endosulfan on a long-term basis leads to similar effects.
The report of the Dubey committee, however, does not offer any explanation for the people's suffering. It does not matter, it seems. This despite the fact that at the meeting of the expert group held on February 14, 2003, internal correspondence shows that the member secretary of the group, Sandhya Kulshrestha, had made the following recommendation: "Since the possibility of association of illness due to endosulfan cannot be ruled out, comprehensive epidemiological study is required to be carried out.... Meanwhile, following the precautionary principle the use of endosulfan may be suspended temporarily."
But even this weak acknowledgement does not make it to the final report. The report simply argues that "as endosulfan has been in use in more than 60 countries, this committee has studied various scientific reports published in India and abroad...and is of the opinion that recommended use of endosulfan in agriculture does not adversely affect the environment, health of the people and animals."
It is evident that the aerial spraying that the people of Padre were subjected to was done without any of the required safeguards (of protecting waterbodies, etc) and, therefore, could not be cleared as recommended use. Yet the report simply says: "All the...information and other relevant data collected do not support the perception that use of endosulfan in PCK plantations caused unusual health problems in Padre village." Case closed.
The report of the Dubey committee was made public in October 2003, when the Union ministry of agriculture filed a counter-affidavit in the Supreme Court in an ongoing matter related to pesticide contamination. The government informed the court: "The report of the expert group has now been accepted by the government of India." The affidavit then bizarrely states: "It was found that endosulfan was being misused for catching fish by the local people." The government added that as this was the possible cause of the problem, it had ordered for instructions to be included on the label: not to use pesticide near water sources.
In December, summoned before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on soft drinks, top ministry officials also told parliamentarians that the report of the Dubey panel, which "included scientists from ICAR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and other institutes", has been accepted. This would imply that the members of the committee have agreed to the recommendations of the report. This, however, does not seem to be the case. When DTE contacted individual members to seek their opinion about the report, the reaction was anything but unanimous (see box: Muted response). Some prevaricated. Others kept silent. And there was clear dissent from Saiyed. Only the industry representative defended its findings. It is, therefore, strange that the ministry jumped to accept this unsigned report. Would it be wrong to say that there was some "unseemly" haste?