More new norms wanted
Bottled water norms notified
The Indian government has notified new standards for pesticide residues in bottled water. The notification came on July 18, 2003, bringing the curtains down on a 6-month drama that had turned quite farcical.
6 months ago, a study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) (see: 'Pesticide residues in bottled water', February 15, 2003) showed that most brands of bottled water being sold under the ISI quality certification mark were pesticide-laden. Indian regulatory law for pesticide residues -- the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 (PFA) and standards specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS)-- was exposed as archaic.
Government was embarrassed. BIS formed an expert group to look into the matter. It proposed new standards for bottled water, which recommended quantified maximum residue limit for individual and total pesticides.
There are pesticides in manufactured consumables because there are pesticides in the 'raw water' used. There are pesticides in the source water because there are pesticides being blatantly used in fields. Thus any policy to provide consumers in India with quality consumables can do nothing until it takes into account these deadly chemicals. This causative logic is so plain it requires no articulation. Unfortunately, it needs to be.
This is one reason: "One should not be afraid of pesticides. They are in fact friendly and responsible for making us food sufficient" -- O P Dubey, assistant director-general at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research quoted in the national daily Times of India on the issue of bottled water standards. This is another: "It will be premature for India to take a decision to adopt a strict standard" wrote Amit Mitra, secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in a letter to the health secretary, on standards for bottled water.
Whatever agricultural scientists or industry bodies say, the larger issue that emerges from both the bottled water episode and now the test results is the need for stringent and quantified norms for pesticide residues in drinking water and other kinds of food. This has to be based on the available science of pesticide residue impact on human health. How does one determine this safe level? It requires a high order of scientific research on chronic exposure levels. It requires regular and periodic reviews of the latest research on the toxicity of these substances. Unfortunately, India, with its bombastic claims of scientific capacities, has neither worked on collecting evidence from pesticide use, nor done much toxicity research.
These processes can be put into motion. Till that happens, Indian standards for pesticides would have to be based on the standards set up different international agencies or governments, namely the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the US Environment Protection Agency (USEPA)/Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the European Union (EU). Most agencies stipulate different limits for different pesticides, whereas, EU under its norms, has agreed on a value, which is low enough to ensure that no chemical is toxic to the human being.
But ad hoc choosing from different sets of regulations could become a completely meaningless activity, simply because there would be no scientific basis selecting a particular norm from say, WHO in one case or USEPA/FDA in another.
The greatest danger is that new norms could become lax. Let's take an example.
Suppose we were to extend the spirit of the bottled water norms and make drinking water standards to regulate the pesticide chlorpyrifos. We could begin with WHO and FAO. They have separately, and jointly under the Codex Alimentarius Commission, set global guidelines for pesticide residues in food. These are minimal guidelines. The agreed norm is that countries should set higher norms based on their individual conditions. So, for instance, WHO has recently issued draft guidelines for drinking water quality, in which, the proposed guideline limit for chlorpyrifos is 0.03 mg/l.
But recent research indicts this pesticide. A new study based in New York found that women exposed to chlorpyrifos during pregnancy gave birth to babies with reduced birth weight and reduce head circumference. This, researchers noted with worry, was when the mothers had very low levels of exposure to this pesticide. Thus if we were to go for chlorpyrifos norms, would the WHO guidelines not be inadequate?
Consider other complications. In 2000, Dow Chemicals was forced to withdraw Dursban (Dow trade name for chlorpyrifos) from residential and commercial use in the US. Currently its use is restricted in agriculture and USEPA is working towards a complete phase-out by 2005. But Dow is now busily promoting this chemical in countries like India. Needless to say USEPA has not put any restriction on export of chlorpyrifos. During 1999-2000, it was the fourth most used insecticide in India with an installed manufacturing capacity of around 14,000 tonnes. Therefore, selecting a lax WHO guideline for this pesticide would be irresponsible, to say the least.
In addition, norms for regulating multiple residues do not exist in most regulations. Only EU stipulates a single residue limit (0.0001 mg/l) and multiple residue limit (0.0005 mg/l). This single quantified limit makes it easier for the regulator to enforce.
We do not have a pesticide policy in the country, to regulate this powerful industry and ensure the chemicals registered and sold are 'safe' for use. More importantly, as information about toxicity of pesticides only trickles in after these 'wonder' chemicals have been sold and we have been duped, our regulatory mechanisms need to be geared towards constant review and recall. Even more importantly, the policy must set the framework of research, innovation and experimentation, to introduce a new generation of environment-friendly pesticides in the country. This business must begin in earnest.
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