Cancer And Pesticides
By Jatinder Preet
23 August, 2005
is widespread in the villages of Punjab, broadly called cotton belt.
The villagers there dont need a study by an NGO, government departments
or media reports to tell that. Its 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
childrens mental health and development. The nine-month study
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
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.
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
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
did not have anything to do with these reports linking cancer to pesticides.
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.
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.
Its 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.
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.
is a freelance journalist working with 'Media Artists' and Editor of
Punjab Panorama, a journal brought out by 'Media Artists'
contact no. 098155