On February 4, 2004 a report was tabled in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha with comprehensive recommendations to regulate and control the use of pesticides in agriculture and to reduce pesticide residues in food commodities. This was the report of the Joint parliamentary committee (JPC) on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juice and other beverages. The JPC was setup in the wake of a study done by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2003 on pesticide residues in soft drinks.
The JPC found CSE study to be correct and had indicted cola companies for unleashing false propaganda on safety of their products. However, the committee went further and found the entire regulatory system for managing pesticides and safety of food commodities to be highly flawed and unworkable and had recommended major reforms.
Eight years down the line, we wanted to see whether the recommendations of the JPC have been implemented or not. And, what we found is nothing less than shocking; not even one recommendation of the JPC has been implemented in its true spirit. Pesticides continue to be registered and used in the country without setting of mandatory safety standards (called MRL or Maximum Residue Limits) on food commodities. To make it worse, the State Agricultural Universities are recommending pesticides for crops that they are not registered for. Even the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, which came into force in 2011 fails to make our food safe from pesticide residues. Our study on the current status of pesticides regulation in the country is the lead story in this issue of Environmental Health Bulletin.
The bulletin also covers two very important studies that we at CSE conducted in the last quarter. The Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML) at CSE conducted a study on heavy metal pollution from coal-based thermal power plants and coal mines in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. The study found alarming levels of mercury both in human bodies and the environment. We also found tell-tale sign of how mercury has started to affect the health of the local population. Mercury emissions from thermal power plants is a widely known, but hardly spoken issue in India. We have broken this taboo and have for the first time forced the government and power sector companies to come clean on this issue.
In another significant study, the PML was requested by community groups in Sri Lanka to study possible causes a mysterious chronic kidney disease afflicting the population of the north central region of Sri Lanka. PML tested the water, soil, food commodities and agro-chemicals for heavy metal contamination and found groundwater with very high calcium hardness and fluoride. In the process, the study disproved the most-dominant theory going around which linked the disease with chromium and arsenic in water and agro-chemicals.
The last quarter of 2012 saw favourable and unfavourable regulatory decisions that are expected to affect all of us in the future.
From September 1, 2012 the Department of Telecommunications in India reduced the allowable level of radio frequency radiations from mobile phone towers to one-tenth. The step, though welcome, is not sufficient to protect public health, as the revised standard is still quite high than the global best practices. We believe that there is a need of a more comprehensive approach including strict siting guidelines for the towers, a system to monitor and regulate radiation levels and gradual tightening of standards to protect us from this invisible threat.
In a major setback to the efforts made worldwide to regulate junk foods, Denmark, which was the first country to tax fat in fatty foods to tackle the problem of obesity, scrapped it almost a year after its implementation. The move is being seen as a surrender to the powerful food industry in Europe. The Denmark model was seen by many as a possible tool to regulate the junk food industry.
An Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) committee has recommended to the Supreme Court to lift the ban on endosulfan for two years to exhaust the current stock of its raw material despite recognizing health hazards of endosulfan. The recommendation of the committee is seen as a major setback by the community groups that have suffered due to endosulfan in states such as Kerala and Karnataka.
2013 is an important year for the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory at CSE. It marks a decade of independent scientific work that PML has carried-out on food safety and environmental toxins. To celebrate this, we are organising a two days conference on food safety and environmental toxins on February 20-21, 2013 at India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Colony, New Delhi. We most cordially invite you to attend and participate in the conference. It is time that we start discussing food safety and public health as a priority.