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Mouthful of death

india Updated: Aug 25, 2006 13:39 IST
Highlight Story

If colas have pesticides, you at least have the option of not drinking them. But what can you do about the pesticides and heavy metals that contaminate the vegetables and milk you have every day? Very little, it seems.

The country may have come up with a food safety bill — which was approved by Parliament on Wednesday — but our plates are far from safe. “Food contamination takes place at many levels: overuse and illegal use of pesticides for agriculture, industrial sludge, air contamination and use of pesticides for storing.  Irrigation water is also not treated properly before use, which causes heavy metal contamination of agricultural produce,” says Ravi Agarwal, director of the environment NGO Toxics Link. Two years ago, a study by Toxics Link and the Imperial College of London found high levels of lead, zinc and cadmium in spinach, cauliflower and okra.

For some metals like lead – its toxicity causes nerve and brain damage – 72 per cent of the samples crossed the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) standards. Other studies by research institutes and NGOs over the past five years have found milk and vegetables steeped in pesticides and heavy metals, largely because of pesticide misuse and water contamination.

Data from the 2001/2002 findings of the All-India Co-ordinated Research Project on Pesticides (AICRP), a wing of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, shows that 63.5 per cent of 529 vegetable samples tested had pesticide residues. Of the 199 vegetable diet samples surveyed, 26 per cent had DDT, which causes cancer, mutations and convulsions, among others.

The AICRP also detected pesticides such as DDT and MCH (methylcyclohexane) in milk samples from across the country in 2001.

Of the 468 samples tested, DDT was detected in 41 per cent samples, and MCH in 65 per cent. DDT and MCH are known to cause cancer and genetic defects.

While these pesticides are above the maximum residue levels (MRLs) in only 7.7 per cent of these samples for DDT and in 15 per cent samples for MCH were above the prescribed safe limits set by the PFA, they do not meet the international Codex standards for food safety. “High pesticide content in the food and water makes even mother’s breast milk unsafe. Studies have consistently shown that mother’s milk in India has among the highest DDT levels in the world,” says Agarwal.

“It’s a wider issue than colas and it’s high time we reviewed food safety standards.

Animal studies show that low-levels of contaminants can cause cancers, nerve damage, affect cells of the bone marrow and decrease sperm count. Data on contaminants’ effect on humans need to be substantiated, especially in rural areas where people are exposed to high levels of pesticides,” says Dr Anoop Misra, director of metabolic diseases, Fortis Hospitals.

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