Rise of the Demons from Beneath


We often discuss in the environmental circles the problem of indiscriminate pollution, our dwindling resources and global impacts like climate change.

We have framed regulations and standards to control various sources of pollution with monitoring and enforcement bestowed to agencies like the Pollution Control Boards (PCBs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). Despite all these efforts, non-compliance is still an issue; judiciary has now stepped in and staff from PCBs and ULBs spends more time in the courts. I don’t know to what extent we feel safe to live in the environment.

We often miss the issue of soil pollution and land contamination. While we do track the status of our ground water, only recently we have started building our understanding on the extent and severity of groundwater contamination. The findings have been alarming, and many studies have linked the contaminated ground water to the occurrence of cancers.

In December 2015, a report was submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) captioned Inventory and Mapping of Probably Contaminated Sites in India. This report identified 320 contaminated sites.

Researchers from IIT Delhi published status on more than 60 dump sites contaminated by disposal of municipal solid waste, outlined remediation efforts needed and articulated challenges such as financial support  and lack of standards and guidelines for remediation.

Government of India started a program CBIMP (Capacity Building for Industrial Pollution Management) focusing on contaminated sites management. The program attempted remediation of few contaminated sites as pilot and produced a report on Options and standards for remediation of polluted sites Key output Report Task 3 Development of Methodologies for National Programme for Rehabilitation of Polluted Sites in India

Unfortunately, the CBIMP did not produce results that were expected especially to facilitate the formulation of national standards for remediation of contaminated soils. The funds for remediation that were allocated got swapped to address concerns by State Governments on GST!  Clearly the Government did not have remediation of contaminated lands as a priority. Today, our soil, agriculture and food continue to remain at utmost risks. Uptake of pollutants (especially heavy metals) in the crops that are cultivated on these lands or on lands nearby results into contaminated food.

But the problem of contamination is not just due to industrial wastes and municipal dump sites. It is also due to high consumption of questionable and spurious insecticides and fertilizers in the agriculture. Use of contaminated water for irrigation is yet another contributor.

Pesticides have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, developmental problems and lower IQ in children. Organophosphates pesticides – which are potent neurotoxins – can damage children’s intelligence, brain development and nervous systems even in low doses.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy agency in the United States releases their list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables – and apples have been ranked as the most contaminated – fifth year in a row. The Dirty Dozen list includes the top 12 fruits and veggies with the highest amount of pesticide residues. It was found that pesticides persisted on fruits and vegetables even when they were washed or peeled.

The FAO report titled ‘Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality’ was released in 2018 at a two-day global symposium in Rome. This report, which is a synthesis of existing scientific research, identifies six soil-related human health risks and three of them are linked to soil pollution. These are soil contaminated with dangerous elements (for example, arsenic, lead and cadmium), organic chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) or pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics or endocrine disruptors.

At present 67 pesticides that have been banned in the US, the EU and other nations are still in use in India. Consequently, the concentration of toxic metals in grains and vegetables grown in contaminated soils have increased at alarming rates. This poses a serious threat to humans and the environment because of its toxicity, non-biodegradability and bioaccumulation.

Refer to a comprehensive work reported in Heavy metal polluted Soils in India: status and countermeasures S. Rajindiran, M.L. Dotaniya, M. Vassanda Coumar, N.R. Panwar and  J.K. Saha Division of Environmental Soil Science ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil Science Bhopal 462 038, India

Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) published thresholds for  Crop contaminants in 2011.  Field investigations have shown that there are several instances where these thresholds are violated posing a great risk to the consumers.

But then these “demons lying beneath” do not stop there. There are economic impacts too. India’s exports of grains, fruits and vegetables are now  under international scanner and rejections of wheat and rice consignment due to contamination reasons are increasingly seen.  Examples are cases of pesticides such as carbosulfan, chlorpyriphos, endosulfan, and quinalphos. If the farmers use these pesticides, their produce in fresh or processed form will have traces of such chemicals and will face rejection in countries such as the US, the EU and Japan.

Just to illustrate, the European Commission has recently brought down in basmati rice the maximum residue limit (MRL) level for Tricyclazole, a fungicide used by farmers against a disease, to 0.01 mg per kg from the next year. This was done for all countries. India exports two major aromatic basmati rice varieties — PB1 and 1401 – to the EU. The shipments of these varieties with Tricyclazole MRL at 0.03 mg per kg were accepted so far from India but now a new threshold of  0.01 mg per kg  will have to be met. This can certainly hit the export market with Pakistan getting an advantage as it does not use Tricyclazole.

Decades of intense agricultural production have left China’s soil seriously polluted and its water depleted. Overuse of fertilizers, together with dumping of industrial waste, is a major factor behind soil contamination. About 3.33 million hectares of China’s farmland is too polluted to grow crops. The contaminated area is roughly the size of Belgium. Given this alarming situation on contaminated lands and food, China is set to become more dependent on imported grains, oilseeds and meat, according to a recent report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the OECD. This is a huge economic impact unless corrective efforts are orchestrated on priority.

Clearly, the circles of understanding pollution are widening. The environmental risks  (a term that we seldom discuss) –  we are facing today and will continue to face – are beyond our fragmented and limited environmental governance.

We need to connect the dots between pollution, water, agriculture and food for a better understanding and towards developing a strategic approach.  Of course we still need to worry about BOD, COD, PM10 and the like, but we must think beyond – to understand the pathways of pesticide residues and heavy metals.

Remember – what goes to the soil and percolates down, gives only an illusion that the problem is out of sight.

The problem however hides only for a while, metamorphoses and rises from beneath like demons in disguise.

This is rather worrisome.

Are we prepared enough?


Cover image sourced from https://crypticrock.com/what-lies-beneath-creeping-to-the-surface-15-years-later/

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One comment

  1. In summary, holistic approach to bring down pollution levels is missing. Bringing down corruption and very strict actions against offender, reduce consumption to a minimum possible and ambition to become rich in shortest time using unfair means are some of the other issues of urgent attention. We are witnessing some of these problems even now, Look at recent happening in CBI.. Honestly is the best policy is in books now.
    Who will save this earth.
    I congratulate Prasad for informative note.

    Ashok .

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