India’s Pesticide Poisoning Tragedy: Could It Happen Here?

They were so young. One minute the children were carefree, joking and laughing with each other as they ate their school lunches. The next, dozens of children had fallen ill and were vomiting, some of them convulsing violently. As of Thursday, 23 children, ages five to 12, from a school in northeastern India, are dead—several of them having died in their parents’ arms before even reaching the hospital. Twenty-five others were hospitalized after eating the lunch.

While there was some controversy Wednesday over what caused the poisoning, authorities are blaming high levels of a common agricultural pesticide—organophosphorous—found in the free lunches.

“The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odor of organophosphorous,” Vinod Mishra, a doctor at Patna Medical College Hospital, told Reuters. “It seemed as though it was coming out of their pores.”

At first, authorities couldn’t say whether the pesticide was in the ingredients—which Reuters reported to be potato curry and rice, while local reports said it was rice with soybeans and lentils—or in the oil used to cook the meal. But medical examiners who conducted autopsies on the dead children confirmed Thursday that dangerous levels of the insecticide found in the meal caused the children to fall ill or die.

Details about how insecticide got into the food may be slow to surface since the school’s cook is still hospitalized and its headmistress has allegedly fled. But the story may serve as a cautionary tale for us, perhaps compelling even more Americans to eat organic and fight the widespread use of pesticides in our food supply. Bill Freese, who is a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, says the lesson of the tragedy is that pesticides—whether ingested at high levels or over many years—harm us. And organophosphorous, which Bihar state education minister P.K. Sahi also says was the culprit in Tuesday’s tragedy, is especially dangerous.

“These are nerve toxins,” Freese tells TakePart. “They can kill us at higher doses, but at lower doses, they can have much more long-term negative effects. It’s obscene that we let toxic compounds on the market that can do these things even at low levels.”

In fact, organophosphorous was developed for use in warfare as a chemical weapon (it’s related to sarin gas), making it even more concerning that we now spray it on food. Given what we saw happen in India this week, acute exposure is obviously quite dangerous, Freese says, but the real threats to Americans are the effects from trace exposure in our food and from “drift” over a longer period of time. Research has linked exposure to organophosphates to birth defects, harm to hormonal systems, increased instances of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and certain cancers (the Pesticide Action Network has compiled much of this research on its website).

Children, Freese says, are especially susceptible to the effects of this pesticide because of their still-developing brains and the fact that they eat more than adults compared to their body weight. Understandably, after Tuesday’s deaths, many children in India refused to eat their lunches—which the country provides to more than 100 million children free of charge to tackle malnutrition.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has attempted to reduce the amount of organophosphorous used in the United States since the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (to varying degrees of success), around 30 million pounds of the toxin were sprayed on our food in 2007, according to the EPA. The National Institute of Health reports that out of all insecticides used in the United States, organophosphates still account for half.

“A lot of times people will think, ‘The EPA approved it, it must be safe,’ ” Freese says. “That is absolutely not true: EPA approves lots of things that are toxic.”

Meanwhile, in India, the grieving parents of 19 of the 23 dead children buried their bodies in or around the school building where they took their last breaths—to serve as a permanent reminder of what they believe was a case of state neglect.

Related stories on TakePart:

Are Pesticides Giving Our Kids ADHD?

The Latest News From the GMO Front: Insecticide Use Is Down, But Herbicides Are Off the Charts

6 Shocking Facts About Pesticides in Your Food Supply