Vegetables are the noble folk of food world, loved equally by doctors and grandmothers. Vegetarians live off them and meat-eaters are told to live off them. But in Delhi, under every crunchy leaf of radish or the shiny brinjal hide dangerous amounts of pesticides that can slowly kill, shows a new study by JNU.
Pritha Chatterjee and Aniruddha Ghosal report how growers, consumers and the authorities may not even be aware of the scale of these toxins threatening people with coughs to cancer
When you eat your leafy greens and those elegant bhindis, you are doing yourself and the earth a world of good. Universally accepted as repositories of vitamins and minerals crucial to keeping good health, vegetables also help us do our bit for the environment and turn us into animal rights champions by default.
But Delhi could be committing serious offence to its long-term health by biting into that innocent-looking gobhi. A recent study by JNU’s School of Environmental Sciences is the latest among many to establish there is contamination from pesticides in vegetables grown and consumed in Delhi-NCR.
The JNU study tested in particular a category of toxic pesticides known as organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) over a year in winter and summer in seven agricultural areas in Delhi-NCR. Most vegetables exceeded limits set by different international regulatory agencies — meaning your vegetables are in fact a daily health hazard.
OCPs are included under a group of toxic compounds called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which cause cancer and other health risks, including symptoms like vomiting and dizziness, according to many studies. The United Nations Environment Programme, through the Stockholm convention on POPs, listed 12 organochlorine pesticides as POPs. All of these were tested in the latest JNU study and found to exist beyond maximum residual levels in Delhi’s vegetables. The study was published in the international journal Environmental Science Pollution Research late last year.
As the authors point out in the study, since many of these vegetables are consumed raw or without much processing, the health risks can be compounded. “Regular consumption of these vegetables even with modest contamination can cause health problems in the long run,” the report says.
“Though we are continuing to do many projects on different categories of pesticides, this is the first ongoing study on OCPs because they are a particularly toxic category with 12 of 20 named by the UN as POPs,” Dr P S Khillare, professor and corresponding author of the study, said. He added that OCPs are also “very persistent in nature” because they are retained in the atmosphere, soil, water and in the vegetables for very long periods. Studies have also established that dietary consumption accounts for over 90 per cent OCP intake in humans, compared to respiratory or skin-based entry from atmosphere.
The authors conducted gas chromatography tests — a test used to separate and analyse compounds — to measure presence and levels of residues of 20 different banned OCP compounds on vegetable samples taken directly from fields in cultivated areas in Delhi-NCR. Six vegetables — radish, radish leaf, cauliflower, brinjal, okra and smooth gourd, all belonging to different vegetable categories such as root, leafy and fruit type — have been studied by JNU scientists.
Sapna Chourasiya, research scholar from JNU school of environmental sciences who is working on OCPs for her doctoral thesis, says tests found most of the OCPs were found to exceed national and international limits. The levels of pesticides in agricultural produce considered safe for consumption are defined as maximum residue limits (MRLs). In the study, the authors compared the levels of pesticides with MRLs set by the European Commission (EC), WHO and Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of India. “Comparison of our results with MRL values established by various agencies clearly indicates that OCP levels were above the established guideline value. It could be done to continued application of OCPs in vegetables to eradicate pest infestation,” the authors have said.
To measure health risks, the daily intake and non-cancer and cancer risks were individually calculated for every OCP. A compound known as aldrin was found to contribute to maximum non-cancer risks for both adults and children. The cancer risk attributed to OCP exposure in particular is considerable, with 12 OCPs identified as B2 class carcinogen, known as probable human carcinogens by the WHO. The study found a high lifetime cancer risk in children and adults, which authors said was “serious concern for Delhi population”. These risks, authors have said, should be taken into account for “future food safety legislation”, and farmers should again be educated.
The researchers say direct spray or atmospheric deposition has been found to be the most common pathway of contamination of vegetables. The concentration of pesticides were found to be higher in winters than in summers. “Vegetables grown in winter in lower temperatures have lower photodegradation of pesticides and the soil surface retention is high. In summers, thermal degradation is faster,” Dr Khillare explained.
Researchers say there is an “urgent need” to prevent further release of these compounds, and bring in “stricter regulatory legislation”.
Researchers said more government action is needed on the ground. “The ban on toxic agricultural products, in particular, OCPs seems to be only on paper even though the pesticide management act from 1968 was modified in 2008. Environmental and health safety is directly linked to poverty and the government needs to act on the root cause. If people are poor they will continue to buy these products, and we continue to be the world’s fourth highest producer of toxic compounds in pesticides,” Khillare said.
‘Can pesticides harm more than the poisonous Yamuna water?’
Parvat Kumar of Kailash Nagar village near Shahdara grows cauliflowers, brinjals, peas and melons on a patch of land along the Yamuna for a living.
Like Kumar, most farmers in Delhi grow crops on farmlands dotting both sides of the Yamuna. But the father of two does not know that a team from the School of Environmental Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) recently carried out a study close to his fields in northeast Delhi’s Yamuna Pushta area. The study found toxic pesticides known as organochlorine pesticides in vegetables in excess of those prescribed by international bodies.
“How can vegetables make you sick? We wash them before they are sold,” Rupesh, another farmer, said.
Kumar says he keeps a steady stock of pesticides to ensure a good harvest. “Once crops are infested with pests, it is hard to retrieve them,” he said.
Most vegetables cultivated in Delhi end up in its kitchens. On Saturday morning, Kumar came to the Ghazipur sabzi mandi, making his weekly trip there to sell his vegetables. From the mandi, Kumar says part of his produce goes to retail shops in Northeast and Central Delhi. A huge part of it finds its way to shops in Noida and Ghaziabad.
He is careful to leave enough for his wife Asha, who squats along the ITO and Nizamuddin bridges selling vegetables, particularly in winter. On other days, Asha travels to Mayur Vihar, setting up her baskets “on the footpath opposite the Metro line”. “Rates at wholesale markets are fixed. So if we sell it on our own, the profit is more,” Kumar, whose children are aged nine and 12, said.
Kumar and other farmers like him, working in fields along the Yamuna, have not heard of guidelines on use or disposal of pesticides, let alone bans on certain kinds of pesticides. “Most of my cultivable land has already been taken away by the government and our jhuggis razed. I have to ensure that the land I am left with produces enough to sustain my family. If I do not use pesticides, how can I sustain cultivation?” he says.
Kumar buys the cheapest pesticides in the market. He does not know what they are made of and only identifies them by the colour of the packets.
Farmers say “conditions” in Delhi force them to use more insecticides and pesticides. “All the construction and habitation, and the pollution have rendered the area uncultivable. We have to stretch resources and fight against all odds for a good harvest every season,” Kumar said.
A year after the Delhi government constituted the first body to check for pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables, Kumar says no government official has visited his field to take samples. “Will they close our fields if they find medicines in the vegetables?” he asks.
Southwest of the river, at Madanpur Khadar village near Okhla, it’s the same story. Asked about what pesticides they use, Vijay Singh, a farmer and vegetable seller, points at the river. “It’s the government that has rendered this river poisonous. That’s the water that comes in our taps and we use on our crops.
How can anything be more poisonous than that water,” he said.
“Earlier, there was a lot more land and a lot more area for farming. But this is not the case anymore. Most of Madanpur Khadar is now an unauthorised colony for those who live here. Generations before us farmed here, growing vegetables along the river. It was enough for them, to eat and also earn profits. The river fed them, but now the river is so polluted that we have to do all we can to make our crops grow,” Raghubeer Singh Bhiduri, a villager, said.
Bhiduri says like most farmers in Delhi, he grows different crops depending on the season — melons, gourds, okra, cauliflower and spinach. “Most of our produce are sold at the Okhla sabzi mandi. Sometimes, we give it to people who in turn sell it in nearby localities such as Kalkaji, CR Park, Alaknanda, Govindpuri and Greater Kailash,” he said.
One lab to test over 100 toxins
For years, 42-year-old farmer Lokesh Singh has grown vegetables like gourds, potatoes and cauliflowers in his fields along the Yamuna riverbed in Shahdara. He has heard of the harmful effects of pesticides but says seasonal pest infestations leave him no choice. “I contact my dealers and they recommend a medicine for the crops. Who knows what is in the medicine? Should I worry about the crop or side-effects?” he asked, stocking a pile of cauliflowers, leftovers from his morning sale at the Ghazipur wholesale mandi, to be sold on the ITO bridge.
Delhi has just one government laboratory for testing pesticide residues. With a capacity of 100 samples per month, it is capable of testing for only 28 pesticides. A six-member health ministry committee, constituted on the directions of the Delhi High Court, submitted a report in May 2013 to frame a policy for monitoring of pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables. The report said the capital’s only pesticide testing lab was “meagre for the state in view of the quantum of fruits and vegetables”. The same report identified 205 selling points for pesticides in Delhi, including 10 under the department of agriculture, eight under cooperatives and 187 private traders.
The committee recommended establishment of three to five government labs near Delhi’s nine wholesale vegetable markets, and testing more samples in private labs. The findings of the committee also recommended random checks, raising frequency of tests, starting smaller labs in the vicinity of mandis so that testing can be immediate, testing of seasonal and non-seasonal fruits and vegetables at least on a quarterly basis, among others.
But nearly two years after the report, little progress has been made. In March 2013, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi government to institute a committee to monitor pesticides and in April, the Delhi government formed the Pesticide Residue Management Cell (PRMC) under the control of the Food Commissioner, but maintained that only 28 types of pesticides could be tested in government labs. The cell held its first meeting only on May 2 and since then, officials said, little work has been done. “We are framing guidelines for better regulation and including the private sector in the testing process. We will also be preparing a publicity campaign around subzi mandis and retail vegetable markets in the city to educate farmers and vegetable dealers,” a senior official from the department of environment told Newsline.
So how do banned pesticides continue to be available to farmers? The May 2013 health ministry report stated that the “building up of pesticide residues above MRLs (maximum residue limits) should not normally arise. But findings by several research workers/institutions belie this position, indicating there is something wrong somewhere”. Indiscriminate use, non-observance of prescribed waiting periods, use of mis-branded or spurious pesticides, continued use of restricted or banned pesticides and wrong disposal practices were identified as some possible reasons for contamination.
Sapna Chourasiya, research scholar from the JNU School of Environmental Sciences, explained that a survey of pesticides and fertilisers in shops in the areas from which vegetable samples were collected for the recent study showed that none of the specific banned pesticides were being sold. “We, however, found several pesticide mixtures in powder form where the components were not identified in the packets. These are marketed as one-size-fits-all mixtures which will work on different categories of vegetables. When we tested them and identified separate compounds, the banned pesticides were identified,” Chourasia said.
A senior official of the state environment department said the problem that the continued use of banned pesticides represented is only the tip. “Increasingly we find that pesticides that are banned or restricted in most countries in the world end up in India. With increasing competition for larger produce amongst farmers, it’s not surprising that they turn to a readily available alternative, which might be slightly expensive, but is guaranteed to ensure increase produce. The need of the hour is for the government to look for greener alternatives. But the government is stuck in a pro-pesticide bias and is not looking at the long-term health impact of such practices,” the official said.