When school lunch kills children

Investigators in India said over the weekend that the free school lunch that killed at least 23 children in Bihar state was contaminated with a farm chemical that is not widely available.

According to the New York Times, Ravindra Kumar, a senior police official, told reporters on Saturday that the cooking oil used to make the meal contained monocrotophos, an organophosphorus compound that is used as an agricultural pesticide.

Ambika Paraja (9) (left) having lunch with her classmates at the primary school in Jhilligoan, Odisha, India, August 2012. Photo: Trocaire, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Ambika Paraja (9) (left) having lunch with her classmates at the primary school in Jhilligoan, Odisha, India, August 2012. Photo: Trocaire, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Within minutes of eating the meal of rice, soybeans, and lentils, the children began vomiting and convulsing with stomach cramps.

Their deaths are a nightmare, and have me looking into organophosphates. I spoke with Gabriel Eckstein. He's a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, director of the International Water Law Project, and has done some research on these pesticides.

Eckstein says organophosphate use dates back to World War 2, when Germany experimented with it as a potential chemical weapon.  "It's a painful way to die," Boyd Barr, of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told National Georgraphic. "You end up suffocating because you are essentially paralyzed," she said.

Despite this toxicity to humans, the chemicals soon gained use in a wide variety of products, because they are effective for getting rid of pests.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to limit their availability to the public. "The EPA has asked manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate its use [for residential purposes]," Barr said. "There are a couple still available for residential garden use, but they're few."

Professor Eckstein, who used to work for the chemical industry, says an incident like Bihar last week is unlikely in the U.S., "…because there is pretty heavy regulation, " at the federal level, he ¬†said. There are laws about how much pesticide can be applied on food crops, and there are buffer zones to keep it from lakes and streams. "In the U.S. we have another law that talks about the presence of pesticide residues on foods," Eckstein said. There are limits on how much pesticide can be sprayed on farm fields, and how much washing is required before an apple or a tomato, for example, can be placed in the supermarket.

Eckstein says Europe has the toughest regulations on organophosphates, then the U.S. "Latin America is getting better, but Africa and Asia have done little on this," he said.

"This is serious – kids dying," he said. But on balance, he's doubtful the deaths of these children will lead to change. "This is the cost of doing business in many parts of the world, " he said. If nothing changes, in terms of regulation, Eckstein says he would question the governments responsible to regulate toxic chemicals like organophosphates.

Tags: , , , ,