Wednesday, August 24

Cancer and Pesticides

Jatinder Preet

Cancer is widespread in the villages of Punjab, broadly called cotton belt. The villagers there don't need a study by an NGO, government departments or media reports to tell that. It's a sad fact of life in these villages notwithstanding the polemics on the issue that we are witnessing these days. While nobody is any wiser after going through the claims and counterclaims in the media, what is sadder is that efforts are underway to obfuscate the whole issue.
To help clear some of these it would be informative to look into who are the main players in this.
In 2003 'Greenpeace India' conducted a study titled 'Arrested Development.' As the name suggests the study concentrated on pesticides impact on children's mental health and development. The nine-month study conducted in six states showed that "the problem of pesticides affecting the health of our children was not limited to accidents. Pesticides are affecting the health of children everyday in every part of the country. In agricultural communities seemingly normal children were victims of chronic exposure to pesticides.. it reflected the reality of the mental development of Indian children being compromised silently and without remorse."
How did cancer in Punjab come into picture? For an answer to that question we will have to delve deeper. It so happened that 'Kheti Virasat', an organisation working in Punjab, partnered for the state part of the study. Bangi Nihal Singh, Jajjal and Mahi Nangal villages in Talwandi Sabo block of Bhatinda district were chosen for the Punjab part of the study. This is the area where an abnormal large number of cancer incidences are being reported, though, no definitive figures are available.
When the phenomenon was noticed first it made the local populace thinking. What could be the causes? How is this area different from rest of the Punjab with a socio-cultural affinity marked by same food habits and other 'way of life' practices? It must be food and water, the common wisdom suggested. Sure enough, the water did not taste the same as it did more than a decade ago. Pesticides are used intensively on cotton, the main crop of the area. There certainly seems to be a correlation.
It is this "common wisdom" that drove the claims linking cancer with heavy pesticides use. It was in the realm of apprehensions so far. But that did not stop the organization going to town. With help of friendly correspondents of English media, a campaign was launched. The campaign took on strength with preliminary investigations conducted by Punjab Health Services and Punjab Pollution Control Board.
While the health department concluded that the underground water cannot be the cause of cancer in the two villages (Giana and Jajjal). It did not deny the high number of cancer though explaining that it could be due to "better awareness about the disease and availing of better diagnostic facilities." PPCB that analysed the groundwater and canal water samples of these two villages declared, "Concentration of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is abnormally high in ground water but well within permissible limits for canal water. No pesticide and insecticide have been detected in the under ground water. However DDT and BHC have been detected in canal water based supply."
The preliminary observations warranted extensive study. So it was ordered. The Community Medicine Department of PGIMER, Chandigarh was entrusted with the study. It found that prevalence of confirmed cancer cases was 103 per lakh at Talwandi Sabo, a high figure by any standards. A comparison of the characteristics of randomly selected individuals, from the villages where a cancer case existed or death due to cancer had occurred in last 2 years, revealed the "involvement in cultivation, pesticide use, alcohol and smoking" in Talwandi Sabo block. So what exactly did the study find out? While it is almost impossible to pinpoint the cause of number of deaths, the study deduced "the cancer cases and deaths are higher in Talwandi Sabo probably due to more use of pesticides and alcohol." Holding 'multiple factors' responsible for cancer cases in Talwandi Sabo, the study was careful to use the word "probably".
Now we are back to the question how did the categorical link between cancer and pesticides come about in media reports? It would be revealing to see a common link in all those news reports. It is that of the organization that 'Greenpeace' took help of for their Punjab part of the study. Almost all the news reports that appeared had a quote from the man who is now operating with a new name 'Kheti Virasat Mission'. Most of these reports mentioned a study by 'Greenpeace' that added credence to the reports.
'Greenpeace' did not have anything to do with these reports linking cancer to pesticides.
Thangamma Monnappa of 'Greenpeace' was, in fact, surprised when asked about this. While we have already discussed what the study was about it is available on net for everyone to see.
This could be dismissed as efforts by an activist organisation to be noticed but the real racket has begun now when the chemical industry woke up to it. The lobbying machinery is getting oiled. It has already started with half-baked stories.
A report appeared citing Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) authorities, with no specific names. They have "suggested to the state government to undertake in-depth study of the causes of cancer deaths in some villages of Punjab and not to jump to the conclusion that these were caused due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides" the news report said.
"Pesticides not cause of cancer deaths", Dr. S.S. Johl, vice chairman, Planning Board, was quoted as saying in another report.
A campaign got underway to discredit the earlier report by PPCB. The result linking the occurrence of cancer to the use of pesticides is based on a small number of persons, it was declared, in a meeting of an experts' group set up by the Punjab Government, co-chaired by Dr. Johl. The experts' group decided that a joint study would be undertaken by the Oswal Institute of Cancer and PAU to "review studies related to the incidence of cancer and its relation, if any, to the use of pesticides."
What Dr. Johl and PAU have to say about the cancer-pesticide link has come to be known already, the irony is completed with the information that the Oswal family having chemicals and fertilizers as a business concern, has a direct association with Cancer Research Institute.
Having said that what are we left with. No we are not sure if pesticides are the real reason for cancer in the cotton belt. Pesticides may be one of the causes, it says. No, there is no other established study that talks of pesticides-cancer link or lack of it. In fact, as someone pointed out in anything as complicated as pesticide exposures or even cigarette smoke, science can never prove beyond every possible doubt that X causes Y. There is always room for a researcher directly or indirectly patronized by the pesticide lobby to say, "Couldn't this disease be partly caused by some factor that you haven't taken into consideration?" Honestly, there's a slim chance that it could be. Where chemicals and humans and ecosystems are concerned, the complexity is enormous, the tools of science are crude, and what is not known is always much larger than what is known.
It's an admitted fact that science cannot provide definitive answers to some of the most important questions faced by individuals and human society. Still, we need the answers.
Who?s going to provide that? While it remains to be answered, one thing is for sure that those who seek answers with pre-conceived notions and ideas will always have their answers doubted upon.
As the debate continues we must not forget that that there is abnormally large number of cancer cases in a specific area in Bathinda district. Another fact remains that despite their use in its limited meaning, pesticides are toxic and hazardous. Now, whether there is any link between cancer and pesticides or not, it should not deviate from the fact that the two are real problems.

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