Cascading effects of flawed NIOH report on Endosulfan

In 2002, National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad published a study titled, “Report of the investigations of unusual illnesses allegedly produced by Endosulfan exposure in Padre Village of Kasargode district (N. Kerala)”. It was followed by another study made by the NIOH titled, “Effect of Endosulfan on Male Reproductive Development.” Both of these studies have become available on internet for public access. During thorough readings of these reports, scientists and experts have noted that the studies have several serious scientific errors relating to the residue analysis of Endosulfan.

Experts have found that the Instrument Detection Limit (IDL) of Gas Chromatography (GC), which is used for chemical residue analyses in these reports, was 1 part per billion (1 ppb) for Endosulfan. However, the studies carry residue finding as low as 0.4 ppb and 0.5 ppb, which fall much below the minimum detection level of the instrument used. This is scientifically indemonstrable. There were many more representative omissions and flaws noted in these studies by experts.

Subsequently, several requests were made by experts to the NIOH to provide ‘raw data’ for review and reprocessing to uncover any laboratory fraud made in this case. But, all these requests, made under the Right to Information Act of India, fell on deaf ears. For many years, NIOH has made various excuses for hiding these details but finally in 2010, with the interference of the Central Information Commission, provided 1,700 pages of raw data to the experts. However, large amount of information has been masked by the NIOH in the shared raw data. Now the question arises that if NIOH is confident of its work, why has this data been masked? Such acts of NIOH provide much insight and indicate that the data and analysis of the studies, and the resulting findings were based on inaccurate readings.

These studies have been cited at various national and international forums and referred to by various Indian and global authorities to propose a ban on Endosulfan. When found fundamentally flawed and incorrect, they should have created uproar across the world. Questions should be raised on the credibility of the NIOH. As a government body, NIOH is responsible to validate reports before publishing them. However, its attempts to discourage wide review of the raw data are astonishing.

On November 15, 2010 a group around 10,000 in number and comprising workers’ families and farmers, have presented a memorandum to the District Collector of Bhavnagar, requesting immediate withdrawal of the NIOH report on the grounds discussed above. The Indian Chemical Council has also written to the Prime Minister of India, requesting a call for a comprehensive scientific audit of the NIOH reports and to punish those who are guilty of committing laboratory frauds.

On account of various such requests, a panel has been formed to study the impact of Endosulfan in Kerala. The expert panel, which includes representatives from the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, will be directly administered by the Health Department. The Central Government is expected to reference the findings of this expert panel before taking its decisions on the Endosulfan issue.

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The Battle between European Pesticide Manufacturers and India’s Farmers

Endosulfan is a generic pesticide which is the most economical, effective and safe pesticide and hence, the third largest selling pesticide in the world. EU wants to convert this large market into one for its patented products. To achieve that, they played some bad games with the help of NGOs and media.

Since India overtook the global production of Endosulfan, Indian farmers were able to amply reap the benefits of this beneficial-friendly, cost-effective pesticide. Assumed to be in use for almost three decades in India prominently in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, it has become a staple pest-protection for crops such as cotton, tea and coffee. The Indian farmer spends a reasonable sum of about Rs 250 a liter on Endosulfan. Endosulfan is safe on beneficials and pollinators like honeybees, and has been proved to be reasonably safe on users given that necessary precautions for handling are taken, as with any pesticide.

Unlike its substitutes that develop resistance of use within 3–5 years of product introduction, Endosulfan is as effective as it was half a century ago. It has been observed that in comparison to Chloropyrifos and other organic methods of pest control in coffee plantations, Endosulfan has been most successful in preventing incidences of berry borer.  Not only is the pesticide affordable, but fast-acting. This attribute ensures quick crop damage control and prevents huge losses from infestations. Endosulfan protects a variety of 29 crops from 60 types of infestations.

Imidachloprid (Rs 2,000/litre), Thiamethoxam (Rs 3,200/litre) and Coregen (Rs 700/litre) are the pesticides promoted as replacements for Endosulfan. Wherever Endosulfan has been substituted by more expensive alternatives like Neonicotinoids, it has resulted in the elimination of pollinators. In their absence, farmers will have to depend on expensive bee boxes that cost as much as Rs 90,000 to pollinate a one hectare farm. Thus, a shift from using Endosulfan will undoubtedly amount to manifold increase in farm input cost and further worsen the dismal condition of Indian farmers.

Endosulfan is the third largest-selling generic insecticide globally with a market value of more than $300 million. 40 million litres of the pesticide is used globally, while 12 million litres are consumed in India per annum. In an effort to convert this massive Endosulfan market into one for its patented substitutes, the EU has been unlawfully pushing for its inclusion in the list of Persistent Organic Pollutants at theStockholmandRotterdamconventions. For this, it has attempted to stir up a melee through dubious reports spun by NGOs like Kerala-based Thanal and Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). These studies are also based on the flawed NIOH report. On the basis of such evaluations and by downplaying the findings of the government committees, the nexus of polity, activists and media are mounting pressure on the central government for a nation-wide ban on Endosulfan. Political parties are viewing the episode as an opportunity to appease their vote banks.

In Kerala, where Endosulfan has been banned, there is much emphasis on the virtues of organic farming. However, it is doubtful whether the same would be equally effective for employment on a large scale acrossIndiawhile ensuring minimal crop loss. Recent news reports suggest that the ban has compelled farmers there to resort to smuggling Endosulfan into the state in cans and bottles. With no substantial evidence to prove the Kasargod claims, it is prudent to decide whether the whims of vested interests are significant enough to effect a change that is sure to impact the enormous section of the Indian population engaged in agriculture.


A Srinivas “Planters find ally in endosulfan to combat berry borer in coffee” in The Hindu Business line, July 28, 2010

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Reviewing the Alternatives of Endosulfan

Since EU lost its share of the Endosulfan pie when it went generic decades ago, their recent promotion of patented pesticides is only part of its attempt to re-enter global pesticide trade. Since their attempts to compete with Indian Endosulfan producers and regain their lost markets did not meet with success, some of them are understood to have resorted to unfair trade practices. By churning out unfavourable stories surrounding Endosulfan through patronage to certain NGOs, the EU appears to be out to recapture their markets by any means possible. Now, in order to counter the affordability, utility and beneficial softness of Endosulfan, EU is engaging in illegal attempts to introduce Endosulfan as a Persistent Organic Pollutant in the Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions. They hope that a total ban will initiate a shift in global pesticide demand patterns.

Endosulfan is a broad-spectrum pesticide active ingredient that is sprayed on a range of 29 crops to protect them from about 60 types of pests. The most prominent benefit of Endosulfan over other pesticides, including those touted as its replacements, is that it is safe for beneficials and pollinators, such as honeybees. Endosulfan is the last pesticide in use that is recommended as a first-spray during pollination by agriculture scientists and entomologists worldwide. The replacement of Endosulfan would not only result in incalculable and irreplaceable harm to biodiversity and the agriculture ecosystem, but also present an additional cost of pollination to farmers. SinceIndiabecame a prominent Endosulfan producer,India’s farmers have trusted its use in a variety of crops, especially coffee, tea and cotton. The states of Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are the top consumers of Endosulfan inIndia. More than 12 million litres of Endosulfan is used here per annum. In order to be popularly accepted, any substitute for Endosulfan will have to possess similar attributes.

Imidachloprid (Rs 2,000/litre), Thiamethoxam (Rs 3,200/litre) and Coregen (Rs 700/litre) are the pesticides promoted as replacements for Endosulfan. Presently, the Indian farmer spends Rs 250/litre for Endosulfan. Therefore, the obvious repercussion of a shift from using Endosulfan is the manifold increase in the cost of pest-protection. The next cost to emerge with the replacement of Endosulfan is that of the potential purchase of bee boxes. Bee boxes cost as much as Rs 90,000 for pollinating a 1-hectare field of crops in the absence of honeybees. Wherever Endosulfan has been substituted by more expensive alternatives like Neonicotinoids, it has resulted in the elimination of pollinators. Imidachloprid, the most popular Neonicotinoid is blamed for killing bees and is banned in France, Germany and Slovenia, among other European nations.

Affordability as a factor will be an impossible offering for patented pesticides from the EU. If the European agenda to free up a brand new market by banning Endosulfan meets success, farmers in developing nations andIndiain particular, will be left in financial ruin. If they consider options touted by local governments, they will have to rely on methods like organic farming. This means risking their produce for a method that if successful, may not possess the effectiveness for a required scale. News reports suggest that the present situation has now compelled farmers in Kerala, where Endosulfan is banned, to resort to smuggling the pesticide into the state in cans and bottles. The clash of ‘patented versus generics’ threatens to leave many such innocents in a lurch.

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Endosulfan has been used for over 50 years across the world and has proven to be a key element in the integrated pest management systems across various countries. There has been no evidence of Endosulfan affecting human health or on any other plants and organisms. The sole case, raised by some NGOs and other vested interests, in the anti-Endosulfan campaign has not been scientifically proven as yet and has been questioned on its credibility by a series of scientific studies. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support on reports that link Endosulfan to diseases and deformities in Kasargod, Kerala. On the other hand, we have our own doubts as to how this tragedy happened only in Kerala because Endosulfan is used in large volumes across India. All the reports which claim that Endosulfan is the cause behind the deformities in Kerala have been found to have scientific data gaps and some of them have proven to be forged. We believe that the NGOs that champion the ban on Endosulfan have been directly funded by the European Union (EU) through some of its official channels.

Being in use for over half a century, Endosulfan is very effective on pests while being soft on pollinators. It is said to be almost equivalent to the neem, which is considered in India as the best natural pesticide. Also, a liter of Endosulfan costs about Rs. 250 making it extremely affordable and economical for the poor farmers. And the reason behind it being so cheap is that it is a generic molecule. The patented pesticides proposed by the EU to replace Endosulfan have not been cleared scientifically as safe and are up to 10 times more expensive. We would like to reiterate that Endosulfan, unlike majority of the other pesticides, is soft on pollinators which help the farmers by pollinating and cross-pollinating. This is very essential for the ecosystem as well as for farmers.

WHO and other such organizations of international importance do not consider Endosulfan as carcinogenic or genotoxic. It has been proven that Endosulfan degrades very fast in the environment and also in the human and animal bodies, which we believe is enough to know that it is not harmful to humans or the ecosystem.

So if you want good food in the future and want our farmers to provide us with the same, sign this petition!

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The Predicament of Agriculture without Endosulfan in India

Since India overtook the global production of Endosulfan, farmers here were able to amply reap the benefits of this beneficial-friendly, cost-effective pesticide. The pesticide that has been used for almost three decades in India in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, has become a staple farming pest-protection for crops such as cotton, tea and coffee, among many others.


Presently, the Indian farmer spends Rs 220/litre for Endosulfan. In case Endosulfan is banned, farmers will be forced to purchase patented European pesticides touted as their substitutes at much higher prices. If replaced with Imidachloprid, which is the offered replacement to Endosulfan, the price of pest control will escalade to Rs 2,000. Other alternative pesticides such as Thiamethoxam (Rs 3,200/litre) and Coregen (Rs 700/litre) are expensive as well. Besides this, most alternatives of Endosulfan develop resistance of use within 3–5 years of product introduction. Pests have not developed resistance to Endosulfan since the global commencement of its use more than 50 years ago.

In India, farmers depend on naturally occurring colonies of honeybees and beneficials like ladybird beetle, chrysoperla, trichograma for the pollination of their crops. As they are naturally occurring, they play their part at no cost. Imidachloprid is harsh on bees and is therefore banned in France. Today farmers in Europe, USA and countries in the developed world where Endosulfan is banned, depend on the use of bee boxes for pollination. Such bumblebees initiate pollination at a cost of US$1 per bee. At that rate, it would cost Rs 90,000 for the Indian farmer to pollinate a 1-hectare field of crops in the absence of honeybees. Therefore, if Endosulfan is replaced, the cost of Endosulfan substitution along with the cost of bee boxes for induced pollination is expected to result in a heavy burden on Indian farmers. By raising the cost of farming almost ten-fold, replacing Endosulfan can lead to increased food prices and inflation.

With limited financial resources to purchase pesticides, cultivators in India do not have many effective options to keep their produce from being ravaged by pests. Today, NGOs and local polity in southern India are heavily espousing the benefits of organic farming in Kerala where Endosulfan has been banned. However, news reports suggest that the situation has now compelled farmers there to resort to smuggling the pesticide into the state in cans and bottles. This instance indicates the demand for Endosulfan among farmers within Kerala itself. So, it may not be a stretch to assume that the pesticide will be similarly missed by farmers all over the country in case of a total ban.


It is incredibly curious that no cases of Endosulfan-linked health disorders have ever been reported elsewhere besides the select talukas in Kerala and Karnataka. With no substantial evidence to prove these claims, it is prudent to decide whether the whims of vested interests are significant enough to effect a change that is sure to impact the large portion of the Indian population engaged in agriculture.

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Endosulfan ban: No clear battle lines drawn

Bangalore: Mohammed Asheel, assistant nodal officer of the Kerala government’s endosulfan rehabilitation programme, recalls his initial scepticism at the reported effects of the fertilizer in Kasargod, the northernmost district of Kerala.

“I found it difficult to believe that 158 different diseases were caused by one chemical like endosulfan,” said Asheel, a doctor who coordinated relief work in Kasargod in 2010, at a press conference held by a Kannada newspaper in Bangalore in March this year. “But when I further studied the pesticide, I realized the mechanisms causing diseases were well documented.”

Controversial chemical: A file photo of a farmer spraying insecticide in his field. India is the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan.

Controversial chemical: A file photo of a farmer spraying insecticide in his field. India is the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan.

Asheel played a role in the culmination of a sequence of events that began with a 2002 study carried out by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, suggesting that misuse of endosulfan through aerial spraying over the cashew estates of Kasargod may have caused a range of genetic, reproductive and developmental disorders. A follow-up study in 2003 by the Kerala government also pointed the finger at endosulfan. The state banned the pesticide that year.

Neighbouring Karnataka has now imposed a 60-day ban after similar health effects were reported in the district of Dakshina Kannada. Environmental groups are welcoming the ban, but asking why there isn’t a nationwide one.

India is the supplier of 70% of the world’s endosulfan needs—a market valued at $300 million (Rs 1,340 crore). Out of the 9,000 tonnes India produces every year, half is bought by the country’s 75 million farmers, making it the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan.

Much of it is used by farmers with small and marginal holdings, because endosulfan is cheap—Rs 286 per kg—and has a broad spectrum of effects. Alternatives such as flubendiamine and imidacloprid cost Rs 13,800 and Rs 2,229 per kg, respectively. Endosulfan is sprayed on all major crops such as vegetables, cotton, pulses and rice to combat pests such as whitefly, leafhoppers, aphids and cabbage worms, without harming insects such as bees, which help in pollination. “This is one of the safest insecticides for pollinators,” said A.K. Chakravarthy, entomology department head at Bangalore’s University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS).

While pesticide manufacturers dispute the evidence on endosulfan’s safety, as many as 70 countries, including the US, Australia, Brazil and 27 European Union (EU) members have restricted its use, up from 17 in 2000.

The pressure on endosulfan is mounting. In 2010, the persistent organic pollutant review committee under the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty to eliminate the usage of toxic chemicals, nominated endosulfan for inclusion in a global ban list. Discussions on this will happen in April, when the Stockholm Convention meets again.

The EU is pushing for a ban, with countries such as India resisting.

“Twenty-seven of the countries with bans are European—they act as a major bloc. Now they have stopped importing cocoa from Africa, resulting in bans in 21 African countries which depend on EU as an export market,” said R. Hariharan, chairman of the International Stewardship Centre (ISC), a non-governmental organization that has observer status at the convention, and is working to prevent the ban.

Under the Stockholm Convention, a chemical that is sought to be banned has to be persistent in the environment, bioaccumulative, capable of long-range transport and undermines human health.

Persistence in environment refers to how fast the chemical degrades, as measured by its half-life—the time taken for it to decay to 50% of its size. The convention considers a half-life greater than 183 days as persistent, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of 1,336 days under aerobic conditions for endosulfan puts it in the highly-persistent territory. In tropical conditions, though, the half-life is shorter at 161-385 days.

Bioaccumulative means the chemical increases in concentration in the food chain with time.

“Endosulfan belongs to the organochloride group. Chemicals in this group, like the banned DDT, are known to be bioaccumulative,” said P.K. Shetty, researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Sciences at Bangalore’s Indian Indian Institute for Science. “Endosulfan can get into the food chain in many ways—from algae, into fish, into humans. Or it can be consumed by humans through contaminated wheat or fruit.”

Studies have demonstrated long-range environmental transport of endosulfan as well. A 2005 study carried out in the Arctic region, and published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, detected elevated levels of endosulfan, whereas levels of banned chemicals like DDT were falling. This shows it travelled beyond the immediate area of usage. The same study showed a threefold increase in concentration of the chemical in the blubber of Beluga whales. According to a fact sheet issued by the Pesticide Action Network of Europe, “Endosulfan is now found extensively…in remote ecosystems such as Arctic, Antarctic, Great Lakes, Canadian Rockies, Costa Rican rainforests, Alps and Himalayas.”

Hariharan disputes the findings.

“Firstly, there are significant scientific gaps (in endosulfan research). I can point you to other studies that show that the half-life of endosulfan in tropical climates like India is far shorter,” he said. “There is only one Canadian study that shows a half-life greater than 180 days and it cannot be applied to India given the vastly different climate. We need data that is representative of the region, but parties like the EU tend to cherry pick data.”

Among the research papers he points to is a 1997 study carried out in Haryana and published in the peer-reviewed Pesticide Journal, which establishes endosulfan’s half-life in soil at 39-42 days.

Organizations such as ISC and the Crop Care Federation of India (an association of pesticide manufacturers) say any research carried out by the EU and others like it would be biased. “Most reports have an agenda,” said Anil J. Kakkar, director of the Indian Crop Care Federation and vice-president (marketing) at Excel Crop Care Ltd, one of the three companies in India that manufacture the active ingredient of endosulfan. “Endosulfan is now off patent and brings in far lower margins. So they want to push substitutes which offer greater premiums.”

The Indian representatives at the Stockholm Convention are in discussions with various ministries, including agriculture, health and chemicals, to finalize the stance for the April meeting. Rajiv Gauba, joint secretary in the ministry of environment and forests, who represents India at the convention, says he cannot comment on what the country’s position is going to be unless the discussions are completed. The agriculture ministry didn’t respond to queries from Mint.

In a 22 February Parliament session, though, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar argued that farmers in several states had been using endosulfan with good results and that the four expert committees set up since 1991 had all recommended its continued use. He said the problems in Kerala were due to improper usage.

Hariharan of ISC said there are no viable alternatives to endosulfan in a country like India. “The convention initially claimed that there were nearly 100 alternatives. But after screening, only six were found to have properties such as being pollinator-friendly and non-toxic,” he said. “Then there is the question of affordability, because these are all patented products, unlike endosulfan.”

Government indecision stems from the lack of scientific consensus. Shetty said there is no need for further evidence.

“It is difficult to pinpoint the long-term impact of any chemical. Even if endosulfan is not yet a proven carcinogenic, there may multiple other health effects that may go undetected because nobody has concertedly researched usage in India,” he said. “Mild symptoms like headache will go unreported, while cases of acute poisoning need an India-wide study. When 70 countries have already banned it, we can afford to follow suit.”

There have been isolated reports of ill effects from cotton farmers in Maharashtra in the 1980s and cashewnut plantations in Orissa in the 1990s as well as parts of Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, pointing to the toxic effects of endosulfan.

“The reason Kerala shot into prominence was because the impact was so widespread. About 10,000 people over 4,500 hectares were affected,” said C. Jayakumar, a sociologist from Kerala who has been studying the issue in Kasargod since 1999. The improper use of pesticides is another point of debate in the row. “India did not have the ultra low-volume formulation suitable for aerial spraying (in Kasargod),” Chakravarthy of UAS said. “Instead, the formulation meant for knapsack sprayers and hydraulic sprayers was used, which had a higher concentration of the chemical. Humans were obviously going to be affected badly.”

Kasargod has a hilly terrain with numerous water bodies that weren’t covered up during the spraying, leading to the water getting contaminated. The spraying was carried out for more than a decade without checking build-up in the soil or being rotated with other chemicals.

“These are compounds a company manufactures under controlled conditions with handlers wearing gloves, etc.,” he said. “Then the product is suddenly passed on to illiterate end users without any instructions.”

Shetty, a proponent of pesticide stewardship—or its proper, controlled use—points out that developed countries use 80% of all pesticides and yet have the fewest instances of mortality and disease related to the chemicals. He belongs to the group that wants manufacturers to educate farmers on proper use.

“In 2000, the manufacturers hadn’t suggested that a different formulation was needed for aerial spraying. Only now, in retrospect, has the issue come up,” Jayakumar said.

Hariharan takes a different view.

“It is the regulator who decides pesticide usage. Manufacturers cannot be held fully liable. Also, even if the proper guidelines weren’t followed, does it justify a complete ban?”

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EU’s Double Standards

Why would EU want to press for a global ban on a pesticide that it has invented, sold and used over half a century? Was it because the pesticide was harmful or simply because it did not profit Europe anymore?


Why did the health problems not occur anywhere but in Kerala? Kerala did not even use substantial amounts of Endosulfan, which has been used in over 60% of the world’s arable land.


Did it want to eliminate competition from this pesticide, which had gone off-patent and was manufactured and exported in large quantities by a competitor—a developing nation—India?


By targeting Endosulfan, is the EU trying to eliminate competition and free up the market for its new, patented and unaffordable inventions?


If the European Commission had ordered its member nations to stop using Endosulfan as early as 2005, why did the European multinational continue to sell it to the rest of the world until 2010? If it was really harmful, would that not be a morally repugnant thing to do—or is the law different for European and non-European countries?

Why would the Italian Ministry of Health issue an order allowing Endosulfan to be used for 120 days to save Italy’s hazelnut crop which was being attacked by weevils if it was harmful? Does it not care for its people? Is the value of crops requiring Endosulfan greater in Italy than in India?


Does that mean that the suggested alternatives of Endosulfan were not effective in protecting the crop? What would the world do in case of such a disaster after a ban on Endosulfan is imposed?

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