'High prevalence of neurological disorder among farmers using pesticides'

The use of pesticides in orchards and farms in Kashmir is proving disastrous for human health. A latest study by Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar has revealed the colossal impact of long term exposure to organophosphate pesticides on farmers’ health in Kashmir.

The study titled ‘An association between organophosphate pesticides exposure and neurological disorders (Parkinson’s syndrome and peripheral neuropathy) amongst people in an agricultural area in Kashmir’, has established a relationship between long term pesticide use and neurological conditions. 

The researcher, Dr Muzzamil Ahmed Andrabi, under the guidance of Prof Parvaiz Ahmed Shah, compared patients aged 18 and above from district Shopian and Baramula, involved in significant agricultural and horticulture activity, against patients from Srinagar district, with almost no agriculture and horticulture activity.

Over the period of two years of study, the researcher separated patients having more than five years of exposure to organophosphate pesticides, the most commonly used pesticides, insecticides in farms, homes and veterinary.

 These compounds work by damaging an enzyme acetylcholinesterase in body of pests, insects and ultimately humans. These compounds, commonly sold in powder or liquid forms for use in fields, orchards and homes, have a damaging effect on human nervous system, cardiovascular system and reproduction.

It was found that 35.3 percent of cases (patients from Shopian and Baramulla) had some kind of neurological manifestations of neuropathy. In a stark contrast, only 7.9 percent of the patients from Srinagar were found with these problems.

Thus people with pesticide exposure were seen to be afflicted with neuropathy, four times more than their counterparts with no exposure. Neuropathy is a disease or dysfunction of one or more peripheral nerves, with symptoms of numbness or weakness.

The neurological manifestations included both sensory and motor disturbances with former being more common. It was also found that increase in the duration of exposure increased the likelihood of having neurological disorders.

Moreover, the study also found that people with pesticide exposure had decreased conduction in motor as well as sensory nerve conduction. “The number of subjects with Parkinson’s syndrome was more in organophosphate pesticide-exposed group than non-exposed subjects but the relationship was statistically insignificant” the study states. “Long term organophosphate pesticide exposure has a statistically significant association with clinical and nerve conduction study documented neuropathy.

The severity of neurological manifestations increase proportionately with increased duration of organophosphate pesticide exposure,” the study concludes. A few years ago, a study carried out by Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) titled “Pesticides and brain cancer linked in orchard farmers of Kashmir” had linked exposure to pesticides with increased incidence of brain cancers in Kashmir.

The researcher, Dr A R Bhat had found that 9 out of every 10 patients with brain tumors were orchard-farm workers, orchard residents and children playing in orchards and exposed to the high levels of multiple types of neurotoxic and carcinogenic (chlorpyriphos, dimethoate, mancozeb and captan) chemicals for more than 10-20 years. About 31.9 percent of these were younger than 40 years. The commonly used pesticides include chemicals like chlorpyriphos, mancozeb, captan, dimethoate, phosalone.

According to a study, ‘Pesticide consumption in India: a spatiotemporal analysis’, carried out at College of Horticulture, Kerala Agriculture University, Jammu and Kashmir tops in the intensity of pesticides application with an average level of 2.337 kg/ha followed by Punjab and Haryana. “However, Punjab and Haryana have exhibited a declining trend in pesticide consumption,” the study notes. Pesticides find their way into human body through direct exposure while spraying, mostly through oral, nasal passages and eyes.

These can also be absorbed through skin while spraying or handling pesticides. Pesticides also get into human body indirectly through contaminated water, edibles and environment.

Many states in India have brought down their pesticide use with improved agriculture practices and modern methods of farming. However, doctors in Kashmir feel that complacency towards pesticide exposure and lack of awareness about their side effects was a “ticking time bomb” considering the wide ambit of diseases and conditions they cause in humans.

Dr Andrabi said that in people with long term organophosphate exposure, it is important to check for neuropathy and other neurological disorders. “Also, education and awareness for the same association is of paramount importance as it will help in early detection of these disorders, and timely intervention.”