source: http://www.outlookindia.com/fullprint.asp?choice=1&fodname=20071224&fname=Cancer+%28F%29&sid=1 Magazine| Dec 24, 2007 punjab: health Poison Earth Courtesy an overzealous Green Revolution, Punjab has poison in its water and a cancer epidemic on its hands CHANDER SUTA DOGRA The Curse Is Spreading The Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh has conducted a study over two years in five villages along Punjab's major rivulets in Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Amritsar districts 88 per cent ground water samples showed alarming levels of mercury, over 50 per cent samples of ground and tap water contaminated by arsenic Lady's fingers, carrots, gourds, cauliflower and chillies found to have toxic levels of lead, cadmium, mercury; cadmium, arsenic, mercury are known carcinogens; mercury also affects the nervous system Pesticides beyond permissible limit found in vegetables, fodder, human and bovine milk, as well as blood samples 65 per cent blood samples showed DNA mutation; there has been a sharp increase in cancer, neurological disorders, liver and kidney diseases, congenital defects, miscarriages This health crisis has been caused by the overuse of pesticides and the dumping of industrial effluents, which have made soil and water toxic Though it constitutes 2.5% of the country's area, Punjab accounts for 18% of pesticide used in the country *** Baljeet Kaur of Giana village in Punjab's cotton belt has been battling cancer for the last 10 years. First it was her husband who died of colon cancer, now she has cancer of the oesophagus. Her neighbour Mukhtiar Kaur is being treated for breast cancer. The family had a hand pump at home which provided them water for their daily needs but abandoned it after health officials told them its water was toxic. Now they get raw canal water for drinking and cooking. "Who knows if it is the water which has brought this disease on me?" she says. "All I know is that scores of people in our village are dying of cancer." In neighbouring Jajjal, the word cancer only evokes deja vu. Karnail Singh and his wife Balbir Kaur both have cancer, live in adjoining houses, each with one of their sons. "This village is cursed," says their brother Jarnail Singh. In Ghaunzpur in Ludhiana district, a good 200 km away, Manjit and Gurjit Singh lost both their parents to hepatitis; an uncle is afflicted with the same. The water from the hand pump in the courtyard turns foamy when heated, so they have dug a submersible pump which pumps out water from 300 ft below. Other households in the village cannot afford to do so. For Punjab's prosperous farming households and lush green fields, the famed Green Revolution is beginning to turn bilious from within. Its gushing tubewells, the cattle heavy with milk, the trolleys laden with vegetables destined for urban markets—all are likely to be contaminated with toxins. The state is sitting on an environmental crisis and few of have any idea of how to tackle it. Some two years ago, when reports of increased cancer deaths first started coming in from the state's cotton belt, the Chandigarh-based Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) decided to investigate. A preliminary study it conducted found a much higher prevalence of cancer in the Talwandi Sabo block and the presence of heavy metals and pesticides in drinking water in the area. It recommended a comprehensive study of the status of environmental health in Punjab's other cotton-growing areas, the setting up of a cancer registry in the state, and regular monitoring of the drinking water. Of course, intense pressure from the pesticides lobby ensured none of this came to pass and the report was ignored. This month, the PGIMER's department of community medicine has submitted a comprehensive epidemiological study (see box) in areas along the state's five major rivulets to the State Pollution Control Board. The results are so shocking that the board has put it under wraps and is having second thoughts about releasing it. Says Dr J.S. Thakur, an assistant professor at PGIMER, who conducted the study, "Our two studies show that all of Punjab is toxic and people do not have safe water to drink. Both agricultural and industrial malpractices are to be blamed for this." The worst affected is the southeastern Malwa region, better known these days as the 'cancer belt'. To counter increasingly resistant pests, farmers here spray their fields with pesticide doses far above those recommended—often cocktailing two or more chemicals. As the former sarpanch of Jajjal, Najar Singh, told Outlook, "Although the recommended dose is about five sprays per season, we sometimes spray our fields 25 to 30 times. Almost every third day!" Punjab, which makes up for just 2.5 per cent of the country's area, accounts for 18 per cent of the pesticides used in the country. The state's problem is their unregulated use, say experts, with most farmers unaware of how to use or dispose of the empty pesticide cans. So, in the last four decades pesticides have seeped into the underground water aquifers, as also in the state's water bodies. And in the last 10 years, more and more well-off households along the drains have begun setting up submersible pumps to get water from deep aquifers, as water from taps and handpumps is unfit for human use. Punjab's finance minister Manpreet Badal is a legislator from Muktsar district's Gidderbaha, located in the cancer belt. "In the 50 villages in my constituency," he says, "there'd be a thousand-odd cancer cases. I've lost count of the funerals of cancer victims I've attended in my area since the beginning of this year. It is an epidemic here." A train leaving from Bhatinda to Bikaner has been dubbed 'cancer express' as most patients from here go to Bikaner's cancer hospital for treatment. Even a child in these parts knows what chemotherapy is about. "Our neighbour used to take hot injections before she died last year," says little Kiranjot at Chandbaja village in Faridkot district. "Many others in our village have taken them." Dr G.P.I. Singh, who heads the department of community medicine in Ludhiana's Dayanand Medical College, has recently begun studying, along with other private doctors across the state and NGO Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), the impact of heavy metals and pesticides on reproductive health in Punjab. "One of the things worrying us," he says, "is that the skewed sex ratio in both Punjab and Haryana could also be due to chemical exposure, as the female foetus is more vulnerable. We notice an increase in spontaneous abortions, infertility, distorted menarche and foetuses with neural tube defects." There is also a high incidence of grey hair among children and young adults in this area. Ask for one, and most villages throw up several. Not just pesticides, but unchecked effluent flow from industries into the rivers and drains too has contaminated underground water in Punjab. At Ghaunzpur, for instance, five paper mills dump their entire effluent unchecked into the Buddha Nullah. However, the state pollution board which is supposed to check industries such as these from polluting water bodies couldn't be bothered. This is evident from the response of the board's chairman, Yogesh Goel, when queried about the PGIMER report."I'm busy right now. You can ask the secretary of the board about it," he told Outlook. Quite predictably, the secretary too made himself unavailable. KVM director Umendra Dutt, who has been most active in raising the issue of cancer deaths in Punjab, feels that agricultural scientists in cahoots with pesticide manufacturing mncs have led to this health crisis. "All these years agricultural scientists have been advocating heavy doses of pesticides without informing farmers of the damage improper usage causes," he says. Meanwhile, though officials are aware of the problem, the state is yet to evolve a concrete water policy to address the problem. Says J.R. Kundal, Punjab's secretary for water supply and sanitation, "Ideally, there should be an umbrella task force to deal with the problem in its entirety," he says. "Presently, different agencies are conducting overlapping studies which will take us nowhere. I am heading a task force to study arsenic in water, while the state planning board is looking into drinking water and allied issues. Although 90 per cent of the underground water is used for irrigation and just 10 per cent for drinking water, we realise that this 10 per cent is crucial for the health of our people." With the government unsure of what to do, Manpreet Badal has installed four distribution points supplying Reverse Osmosis water in his constituency. "Till a statewide water supply scheme comes up," says he, "I've taken this interim measure." His people are lucky. Others in the state are condemned to drinking polluted water and suffer from deadly diseases, reaping the poisoned fruit of a Green Revolution gone unchecked.