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'Controlled use': First world ideals, third world realities

By Madhumita Dutta

'Controlled use' is the basic idea that seems to justify the continued use of dangerous substances such as pesticides and asbestos. But what science informs it? What politics pushes it? Experts say it is no more than sales propaganda from the chemical industry, not only in India but also in western countries where this idea was first mooted as an apology for the use of hazardous substances

  • Vaddula Venkatareddy, a 35-year-old landless agricultural labourer from Kambalpalli village of Mahbubabad mandal in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, was spraying pesticides under a hot October sun when he suddenly felt dizzy and started vomiting. A day later he died in hospital.
  • Sammaiah, an agricultural worker, began spraying pesticide at 8 am in the morning and continued spraying until around 3 pm. His family found him dead at one side of the paddy field where he had gone to wash his hands. The post-mortem report stated he had died of acute pesticide poisoning. The doctor said that the chemical had gone into the skin through a towel soaked in the pesticide he had been spraying. He was spraying a 'mixture' of endosulphan and bavistin, as advised by the pesticide dealer.
  • Veeranna was spraying a 'mixture' of malathion and monocrotophos on a cotton field where he had gone to work as an agricultural labourer. He sprayed from morning till evening, taking a short lunch break in between. In the evening, after getting back home, he started vomiting. He was taken to hospital where he died the following day. Did he use any protective gear that day? "No, no protective clothing since no one else uses it. I mixed the pesticide with a stick and poured it into his tank, and he sprayed," said Manjula, his wife. "Women do not spray, we mix the pesticide."
  • Sooraiah, a dalit bonded labourer, died after the pesticide he was spraying on a mango tree fell on him. He was found dead under the tree. Do you use protective gear while spraying pesticides? "No protective gear, but we wash our hands thoroughly with soap. Not just us, no one uses protective gear." What precautions are taken? "We cover our ears and head with a towel; nothing to cover the face."
Sammaiah, Veeranna, Sooraiah and Venkatareddy are merely a handful among the many Indian farm workers who pay each year with their lives to expose the myth that 'controlled use' of practically unmanageable chemicals like pesticides is possible. Their stories were told by surviving members of their family at a public hearing held by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, in 2005 (1).

The 'reasonable precautions' prescribed by the pesticide industry are not practical for a variety of reasons. Strangely, even as the death toll mounts, the government does little to recognise that the difference between theory and practice of 'safe' use of pesticides is the difference between life and death.

At the same hearing, Dr Nehru, medical superintendent of Mahbubabad area hospital, also testified. "The sprayers do not use any face mask, cap, gloves, gumboots to protect themselves from exposure. They should use plastic protective gear. Washing hands is not enough. What about all the other body parts which have been exposed? Workers go on spraying without a pause throughout the day. Power sprayers make the situation worse. There are spillovers and the clothes become wet with the poison. There were 35 pesticide poisoning cases admitted in my hospital in just one month."

Listening to him, one wondered whether Dr Nehru had ever visited a farm during spraying time. Maybe not. Had he known that at temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius, workers can hardly bear wearing a scrap of cloth let alone plastic protective gear, he wouldn't have made such a suggestion.

We came across similar testimonies in 2002, in Warangal district, where during the peak agricultural season, the sale of pesticides and seeds can touch up to Rs 3 crore a day. Then too the industry blamed the sprayers for not handling the pesticides "properly as advised". They argued that "these are poisons meant to kill. And our label says so".

Indeed, the labels do say they are poison. They even tell you how to spray, when to spray, what protective clothing to wear, etc. For instance, ponder the following label on the pesticide can of a multinational company:

    Do not inhale the spray mist. Do not mix the spray solution with bare hands. Always use protective clothing like apron, face mask, hand gloves, boots, etc, while application. Bathe or shower and change into clean clothes at the end of the working day. Do not contaminate environment and water sources... The rooms meant for storing shall be well built, dry, well lit, ventilated and of sufficient dimension. Dispose of used containers or packages, surplus material and washings in a safe manner so as to prevent environmental or water pollution. The used package shall not be left outside to prevent their re-use. The packages should be broken and buried away from habitation.

How practical is it for a daily wage labourer like the late Sooraiah or Vaddula Venkatareddy to follow these precautions against getting poisoned? Or for the farmer who hired them? How many of them can actually read these labels, even in their own language? How realistic is it to expect farmers and labourers to observe the conditions of 'precaution' and 'control' in the fields of Warangal or Vidarbha, or anywhere else in India for that matter?

The industry believes it is realistic. Indeed, many may even supply a set of cheap gloves and plastic overalls for free, or at minimal cost, with each can of pesticide. But even these are one-size-fits-all protective gear. Their responsibility ends there.

While inspecting an unused transparent plastic overall and a pair of gloves on a farm in Warangal, it was clear that it wasn't just the heat that stopped the workers from using them, especially the women who mix the pesticides. It was the size of the garments, which were meant for large-sized men! So it made eminent sense when Kundanapalli Padma, wife of dead worker Ramulu of Khanapur village in Warangal, testified that "no one in the village uses protective gear".

Sadly, however, it's not just the industry that hides behind the ethically untenable plea "don't blame us, we told them what to do". Even the government, which is supposed to protect citizens, echoes the same lame defence. "If users do not use endosulphan properly, why blame endosulphan? Blame the users," was a comment made by Dr M K Pandey, an advisor in the environment ministry at an international UN meeting recently in Rome, Italy.

That the idea of 'controlled use' doesn't work in practice was demonstrated beyond a doubt in the case of aerial spraying of endosulphan, an endocrine disruptor, over government-run cashew plantations in Padre village of Kasargod district in Kerala. Despite a ban on aerial spraying in 1992, the state government sprayed the pesticide over the plantations from the air until 2000. And several pesticide companies continued supplying the state government with pesticides. Over two decades of spraying, this chemical has not only poisoned the water, soil and vegetation, it has also left the community crippled. "Between 1978 and 2000, the government itself poisoned the people of Padre. How will 'controlled use' conditions work for individual farmers or even private companies when the government itself cannot do it?" asks C Jayakumar of the Kerala-based voluntary group Thanal which has been working with endosulphan victims in Padre village.

Besides pesticides, asbestos, an industrial mineral fibre, is another example where industry has been quite successfully using the fallacy of 'controlled use' to continue business as usual.

A current study being conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health-Ahmedabad, which is part-funded by the asbestos industry, is trying to showcase how 'improvements' in working conditions have brought down workplace exposure to asbestos fibre, thereby eliminating the risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. In other words, under 'controlled conditions', asbestos, a known human carcinogen, is safe for Indian workers if handled 'properly'.

In India, over 100,000 workers in the asbestos product manufacturing industry and over a million in the construction industry, mostly unorganised, work with asbestos every day. Besides, India has its own asbestos mines in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. With an annual turnover of Rs 3,000 crore in asbestos cement product manufacturing alone, the industry in India is booming, while the world over this substance is being banned due to public health concerns and the fact that it is not possible to have 'controlled use' conditions for a substance like asbestos. Over 100 major corporations have gone bankrupt paying compensation for health damage to workers and their families.

In fact, in 1999, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rejected all arguments in favour of 'controlled use' when it upheld France's decision to ban the import of asbestos products from Canada. The WTO's disputes settlement panel rubbished as untenable Canada's argument that by 'controlled use' France could actually reduce the hazards of asbestos to 'insignificance', and concluded that France had every right to determine its own acceptable level of risk for something as dangerous as asbestos.

Politics of 'controlled use'

Let's try to understand 'controlled use', the basic idea that seems to justify the continued use of these dangerous substances. What science informs it? What politics pushes it? "Controlled use is a sales propaganda that the chemical industry has been using for decades, not only in India but also in western countries where this 'idea' was first mooted as an apology for the use of hazardous substances," says Dr Barry Castleman, a noted US-based public health scientist and author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects. The basic argument was that toxic stuff such as pesticides or asbestos would cease to be a threat to health because of precautions taken in manufacture and use (2). In other words, it is possible to mitigate harm from these substances under 'controlled use' conditions.

This may sound persuasive in theory, but what does the evidence in the real world tell us?

To unpack the politics behind the insidious term 'controlled use' it might be revealing to look at the history of the asbestos industry. In the early-1970s, when the evidence of risk to asbestos workers was mounting in the US, the industry resisted all attempts to regulate and put safety labels on its products. The US Asbestos Cement Producers Association rejected suggestions to put a warning about the hazards of sawing asbestos cement products in its brochure for users. "Requiring cancer warnings on asbestos products" was bitterly contested by US asbestos cement pipe producers "whose main market was the sale of conduits for drinking water supply systems," according to Castleman. In his commentary in the International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health (3), titled 'Controlled Use of Asbestos', Castleman wrote: "The proposed exposure limit of 2 f/cc already adopted in Britain in 1969 was objected to by the industry in the US as prohibitively costly, and it was warned that the asbestos textile industry was most at risk of losing US jobs to 'foreign competition'."

As public awareness about the harm of asbestos to workers and users in the US and Europe increased, there was a global flight of these companies to third world countries. Major asbestos corporations from the US, Europe and Australia set up factories in India, Africa and Latin America which "grossly violated their home-country standard", according to Castleman. It is worth noting that two of the largest asbestos multinational corporations that controlled the world trade in asbestos -- Johns-Manville and Turner and Newell -- and operated major interests in India 20 years ago, have now gone into "bankruptcy proceedings over the liabilities in the US from the many lives asbestos destroyed" (4). However, they never owned up to the health damage liabilities that their operations caused to Indian workers.

To promote their products overseas, these companies resorted to the manufactured science and 'controlled use' bogey, knowing full well that it had failed in their home countries. Alongside, they also promoted the idea of safe 'locked-in' and 'encapsulated' asbestos products. This was based on the controversial labelling politics in the US where, relenting to industry pressure, the US Occupational Safety and Health Association did not require labelling of all asbestos products (5), essentially the ones in which asbestos fibres were locked up in cement or some such binding agent. But with the growing number of cases of asbestos-related diseases amongst asbestos product users in the industrialised world, the idea of safe 'locked-in' asbestos products was soon debunked. To date, this false argument is being used by the Indian asbestos cement product industry as sales spiel.

"Controlled use of asbestos is the asbestos industry's way of referring to business as usual, with a false face. Really well-controlled use of asbestos has never existed anywhere in the world, and it isn't being invented anywhere today," says Castleman.

The debate over asbestos and its harmful effects has now moved beyond politics. That asbestos cannot be 'safely used' is received wisdom now, but India is still stuck in the mud. It continues to propagate the belief, under corporate pressure, that 'safe' use of asbestos is possible.

(Madhumita Dutta is a Chennai-based activist and a member of Corporate Accountability Desk-The Other Media)


1 'Poisoned by Pesticides: Proceedings Report of a Public Hearing on Acute Pesticide Poisoning of Sprayers', Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and Modern Architects of Rural India (MARI), 2005

2 Barry Castleman, '"Controlled Use" of Asbestos' IJOEH, Vol 9, No 3, 2003

3 Ibid

4 Ibid

5 Ibid

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009