Pesticides in popular soft drinks made a nation, high on colas and aerated drinks, go off them completely, banning them from schools and homes with puritanical zeal.With soft drinks, people at least had a choice. They could escape harm by simply not drinking them.
The same cannot be said for the other food products - most of them ostensibly healthy - in your plate. Toxins are in everything: in fruits, vegetables, pulses, eggs, fish, meats, milk, you name it. Virtually everything we believed was good for the body has been found laced with something that's harmful to touch, let alone eat. Take chlordane, a chemical most commonly found in rat poison. Vegetables sold across Delhi have amounts that can wreck human health, show several tests.
Reacting to a petition by Consumer Voice, an NGO that found pesticide residues as much as 750 times higher than European Union standards, Delhi High Court set up a crack team headed by the Addition Solicitor General to file its report in five weeks.
How fresh is farm-fresh?
The problem lies at the start of the chain: farms. "When pests eat into the harvest and the farmer wants to save his investment, he uses pesticides. But he often has no clue how much to use. The damage starts there," says Chandra Bhushan, head of food safety research at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the NGO that blew the whistle on pesticides in colas.
Although no amount of pesticide is good for the body, Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), which is an amount of pesticide considered relatively safe to eat every day if the nutrition we get in return outweighs the harms. There is also Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), which is the highest amount of pesticide permissible in any food item.
In India, there is no regulation on the ADI and MRL. No one keeps a tab on farmers, and there is practically no check on the toxicity of the produce that reaches the markets. "The farmer and the pesticide lobby pretty much decide how much poison our food will carry," says Ravi Agarwal, director of environmental NGO Toxics Link.
What's your poison?
Pesticides and insecticides apart, fresh produce has large doses of heavy metals, which attack the nerves, lower immunity and disrupt mental growth. More than once, fish in West Bengal and Delhi, where fish from several states, has tested positive for large amounts of mercury, by Kolkata-based NGO Disha and Toxics Link.
"Sixty-one of 76 samples had large amounts of mercury, with fish caught near heavy industrial townships and coal-mining belts being the most polluted," says Shantanu Chackraverty, lead researcher of the study at Disha.Over the years, milk, eggs and pulses have been found to contain pesticides and other harmful substances by none other than the government's Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). "We regularly pick up samples from markets and are astonished to find that several items, both loose and packaged, have high levels of harmful substances that are artificially introduced in them," says a senior FSSAI official, on condition of anonymity.
"We all have heard about toxins in food, but what do we do? We can't give up eating," says Rajita Mohan, a mother of two in Mayur Vihar Phase I. For some years now, she cleans her fruits, vegetables, meats and fish with lukewarm salty water. "I even scrub them before use, but deep down, I know there's no escaping these poisons," she says.