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Water poison eats scientists’ guts

New Delhi, Aug. 22: For nearly five years, agricultural scientists have been sitting on evidence that India’s water is contaminated with pesticides, virtually gagging themselves for fear of causing an explosion of public concern, a senior scientist has said.

The first signals of the extent of pesticide residues in groundwater and in irrigation water emerged five years ago and have been supported by subsequent reviews, according to Trilochan Singh Kathpal, a scientist with the all-India co-ordinated research project of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

“Although the findings were documented in internal scientific reports, they have not been made public,” said Kathpal, who has nearly 20 years’ experience in monitoring the presence of pesticides in agricultural products. He was a professor of entomology at Hissar Agricultural University until last month.

Kathpal said scientists at various centres of the research project began to track pesticide levels in farm produce and in water in the early 1990s.

They examined hundreds of samples of soil, fruits, vegetables, honey, and water from rivers, lakes, and natural underground water reservoirs.

An analysis of 250 water samples, presented at a workshop in Calcutta in 1999, had revealed that nearly 150 samples contained one or more pesticides, Kathpal said yesterday at a panel discussion here.

Reports by the Centre for Science and Environment on pesticides in bottled water and soft drinks have sparked concerns about pesticide residues in water resources.

Kathpal said early data on water did cause some concern among scientists. But they took a “unanimous decision” not to make it public, and to continue with the studies.

He told The Telegraph that the decision not to release the data into the public domain was taken on several grounds.

“The procedure for analysing pesticides in water is complex and we wanted to be sure of the data,” he said.

There was another problem — the permissible limits for many pesticides in water had not been fixed, and scientists were not sure if it would be wise to sound an alarm, he said. They also felt water was not in the project’s domain.

Earlier this year, a review of the data again confirmed the presence of pesticides in a large number of cases among more than 700 water samples tested by over 15 project centres, Kathpal said.

However, a top ICAR official said data analysis is still under way. “The research is not complete and we want to confirm the findings,” said Gautam Kalloo, ICAR deputy director-general.

The common residues were chloropyrifos, DDT and endosulfan — pesticides that are widely used in agricultural and insecticidal operations, Kathpal said. Two other agricultural scientists with the project did not deny Kathpal’s claim.

Kathpal has now been asked by the ICAR to compile the data on pesticides in water that has accumulated over the years.

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