Soybean fields have been killing wildlife for decades. Direct exposure to toxic pesticides may cause wildlife to become sick or die. Same goes for human beings. At least 22 children died and more than two dozen others were sick after eating a free school lunch that was tainted with insecticide, Indian officials announced.
The children, between the ages of 5 and 12, fell ill Tuesday soon after eating lunch in Gandamal village in Masrakh block, 80 kilometres north of the state capital of Patna. School authorities immediately stopped serving the meal of soybeans and potatoes as the children started vomiting.
One official said the food may not have been properly washed before it was cooked. A preliminary investigation suggested the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on crops.
Local villagers said the problem appeared to be with a side dish of soybeans and potatoes, not grain. Children who had not eaten that dish were fine, although they had eaten other rice and lentil side dishes, several villagers told the AP.
Very toxic pesticides are used to grow soybeans. Many organophosphate pesticides are implicated as causes of neuropathy in humans. The children suffered the third level of organophosphate poisoning.
Organophosphate poisoning (OP) can occur at three levels of severity.
OP pesticide exposure occurs through inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact. Because some OP pesticides have been considered to disintegrate quickly in air and light, they have been considered relatively safe to consumers, although critics and health experts claim the residues do not disintegrate to any appreciable degree.
1) The victim does not even detect a problem or maybe just some discomfort and confusion associated with a hard days work. Continued exposure can lead to brain damage.
2) Mild Acute Poisoning – This is a ‘flu-like illness which follows exposure. Sometimes the victim just has a bit of a headache, feels unusually tired or finds he or she can’t think clearly.
3) Acute Organophosphate poisoning (This is the syndrome recognized by doctors and Poisons Units. Symptoms occur within 1-24 hours of exposure and include collapse, breathing problems, sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive salivation, heart dysrhythmias, extreme anxiety etc.) The worst case scenarios will lead to death.
Children who did not die are exposed to long-term health effects affecting reproduction and neurodevelopment.
Certain reproductive effects in fertility, growth, and development for males and females have been linked specifically to OP pesticide exposure.
As the children age, males exposed to OP pesticides can show poor semen and sperm quality have been seen, including reduced seminal volume and percentage motility, as well as a decrease in sperm count per ejacuate. In females, once age of menstruation is reached, cycle disturbances may occur, longer pregnancies, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and some developmental effects in offspring have been linked to OP pesticide exposure.
Neurotoxic effects have also been linked to poisoning with OP pesticides causing four neurotoxic effects in humans: cholinergic syndrome, intermediate syndrome, organophosphate-induced delayed polyneuropathy (OPIDP), and chronic organophosphate-induced neuropsychiatric disorder (COPIND). These syndromes result after acute and chronic exposure to OP pesticides.
Symptoms include miosis, sweating, lacrimation, gastrointestinal symptoms, respiratory difficulties, dyspnea, bradycardia, cyanosis, vomiting, diarrhea, as well as other symptoms. Along with these central effects can be seen and finally seizures, convulsions, coma, respiratory failure. If the person survives the first day of poisoning personality changes can occur, aggressive events, psychotic episodes, disturbances and deficits in memory and attention, as well as other delayed effects. When death occurs, it is most commonly due to respiratory failure from the combination of central and peripheral effects, paralysis of respiratory muscles and depression of the brain respiratory center.
A team of scientists from the University of Montreal and Harvard University has discovered that exposure to organophosphate pesticides may be associated with increased risk of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.
Children in Shock
Savita, a 12-year-old student who uses only one name, said she had a stomach ache after eating soybeans and potatoes and started vomiting.
“I don’t know what happened after that,” Savita said in an interview at Patna Medical College Hospital, where she and many other children were recovering.
The lunch, part of a popular national campaign to give at least one daily hot meal to children from poor families, was cooked in the school kitchen.
The children were rushed to a local hospital and later to Patna for treatment, said state official Abhijit Sinha.
In addition to the 22 children who died, another 25 children and the school cook were in hospital undergoing treatment, P.K. Sahi, the state education minister. Three children were in serious condition.
Authorities suspended an official in charge of the free meal scheme in the school and registered a case of criminal negligence against the school headmaster, who fled as soon as the children fell ill.
Sinha said the cooked food and kitchen utensils have been seized by investigators. “Whether it was a case of negligence or was intentional, we will only know once the inquiry has been conducted,” he said.
The program has been replicated across the country, covering some 120 million school children. It’s as part of an effort to address concerns about malnutrition, which the government says nearly half of all Indian children suffer from.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.