(Beyond Pesticides, July 22, 2013) Organophosphate pesticide poisoning from contaminated school lunches is suspected as the cause of deaths for at least 25 children in India. The children, aged four to 12, became sick after eating a lunch provided to them by the school. Several reports suggest the rice or cooking oil used to prepare the food contained unsafe levels of organophosphates, a highly toxic class of pesticides that have the same mechanism of action as nerve gasses. In the U.S. most organophosphates pesticides were phased out of residential use; however, these neurological poisons are still widely used on agricultural crops and for mosquito control.
The schoolchildren began fainting soon after eating the contaminated food, and within hours at least 25 children were pronounced dead. Authorities discovered a container of organophosphate pesticides next to the cooking oil, but were not able to determine if this was the source of the poisoning or if the food itself was tainted with organophosphates. The school cooks, who both had children at the school that either fell ill or died from eating the food, told authorities that the cooking oil appeared different than usual, but the principal told them to use it anyway. The principal, who stored the food in her house, fled after the students became ill.
The food was provided to the children through a nationwide Indian program known as the “Mid-Day Scheme.” The program is one of the world’s biggest school nutrition programs; part of an effort by the government to address malnutrition which nearly half of all Indian children suffer. The scheme also acts as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school.
Organophosphate pesticides originally were derived from World War II nerve agents. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 73 million pounds of organophosphates were used on U.S. crops in 2001. Organophosphates inhibit cholinesterase, a neurotransmitter that carries signals between nerves and muscles. Inhibiting cholinesterase can cause poisoning victims to suffocate due to paralysis and cause lungs to fill up with fluid. Children are at an elevated risk for organophosphate pesticide poisoning. According to Dana Boyd Barr, Ph.D, quoted National Geographic, “They’re more vulnerable because their detoxification systems are more immature, so they can’t eliminate the pesticide as well.”
Though the risk of acute poisonings in the U.S. is lower than countries like India because the registrations for most household organophosphate products have been phased out, Americans still face risks from long-term low-dose exposure. A 2012 study that pulled data from 14 studies over the past 20 years found that long-term low-dose exposure to organophosphates can damage neurological and cognitive functions. Other studies have also connected low-dose exposure to organophosphates to ADHD, reduced IQs, and Alzheimers. Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, in a comment to National Geographic on organophosphate exposure, said, “The focus tends to be on acute exposure. For chemicals whose risks are aggregated as a result of ongoing exposure… that is not adequately tested by regulators anywhere in the world.”
Organophosphates are also harmful to the environment. A recent study released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found high levels of organophosphates including chorpyrifos and diazinon, in rural and urban streams. A recent chlorpyifos contamination in Great Britain’s Kennet River decimated aquatic invertebrate populations which could lead a decline in the river’s trout population. Organophosphates are toxic to bees, freshwater fish, other aquatic organisms, birds, domestic animals, and a variety of plants and soil organisms. They have been shown to bioaccumulate in fish and synergistically react with other chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also failed to implement strong environmental protections from organophosphates. According to Mr. Feldman, “We have the same problem that we have on the human side, which is that we’re not adequately assessing the risk of chronic, low-level exposure.”
Through our Pesticide Induced Diseases Database (PIDD), Beyond Pesticides keeps track of the most recent studies related to pesticide exposure. For more information on the multiple harms pesticides can cause, see our PIDD pages on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, and other diseases.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.