Monday, 30 May 2011

India’s crops laced with pesticides

The Indian government has proved more effective at meeting food export targets than feeding their own people. Over 220 million people go hungry but food exports are booming. In 2009 the (Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA) set a target to double India’s agricultural exports from $9 billion to $18 billion within five years. But India’s food export drive, and attempt to build a reputation for organic produce, could be compromised by repeated incidences of contamination with pesticide residues, which have exceeded MRL’s (Maximum Residue Level), or are banned, in importing countries.

Basmati rice fetches about twice the price of non-Basmati, and India’s exports are worth around $300 million per year. Yet future exports could face uncertainty, after thousands of tonnes of Indian Basmati rice were rejected by European countries in 2010. High pesticide residue levels were detected by the Eurofins laboratory in Hamburg. Levels of Cabenenzum and Isoprothiolane were three times more than the European Commission MRL of 0.01 mg per kg. Stores in Germany alone withdrew 30,000 tonnes of the rice, and there were concerns that exports to the Gulf, which accounts for 70 per cent of India’s Basmati rice exports, might be affected.

In December 2010 the EU rejected three shipments of okra grown in India, because levels of three pesticides, Moncrotophos, Acephate and Traizaphos exceeded the MRL. Triazaphos is known to be toxic to birds and the level detected, 0.11mg per kg, is over ten times the EU MRL of 0.01mg per kg.

The Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s has set a target to increase exports of grapes from 37,000 tonnes a year to 44,000 tonnes. About 70 per cent of India’s grape exports are to the EU. But, in 2010, the exports faced a setback when several consignments of grapes were rejected because of residues of Chlormequat, which is not permitted in the EU. Some of the grapes rotted in Rotterdam Port, but most ended up being eaten by citizens of countries with lower pesticide residue standards. Some of the consignments of grapes were diverted to other countries, and the UK and Sweden allowed import of the grapes by introducing their own MRL, even though the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) stated that children eating a large amount of the grapes in a short period might suffer ‘acute symptoms’, which could include ‘irritation mouth or throat, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and headache’.

Most of India’s organic food is grown for export. In 2009, India exported 135 types of organic products, and APEDA has set an organic food export target of $1 billion within five years. Asit Tripathy, chair of APEDA, stated a goal of making India the world’s number one organic hub over the next 10 years. Currently, India ranks 33rd in the world in terms of total land under organic cultivation and 88th regarding the proportion of agricultural land under organic crops compared to the total farmed land.

Cotton is India’s leading organic export, and carries a premium of 15 – 20 per cent more than conventionally grown cotton, and in 2008-2990 India accounted for as much as 65 per cent of the 175,113 tonnes of organic cotton produced worldwide. In February 2010 it was reported that garments labelled organic in popular clothing stores including H&M, C&A and Tchibo contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. Lothar Kruse, director of an independent testing laboratory Impetus, based in Bremerhaven, said that about 30 per cent of the samples were contaminated with GM cotton. It appeared that the Indian subsidiaries of the two European certifying bodies had failed to check the seeds being used by organic farmers, many of whom had used seeds of Bt (GM) cotton. With Bt cotton accounting for between 65-75 per cent production in India, contamination is a widespread concern. G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said ‘even at 100 metres there is possibility of contamination’. If just one plant in a one-acre plot, which can have 4,000 plants, becomes contaminated, there is a serious risk that the seed for the next season will be contaminated.

Pesticide residue levels on India’s food crops, including banned pesticides, are far higher on food for the domestic market. A report by Government of India’s Department of Agriculture and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, shows the results of analysis of samples from 13 states across India in 2008 and 2009. Many tested above the MRL set by the 1954 Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, showing widespread lack of monitoring of pesticide application. Residues of four pesticides which are banned in India were detected. Aldrin, Chlordane, Chlorfenvinfos and Heptachlor are banned for use, manufacture, import and export:

• Aldrin - detected in brinjal, cauliflower, tomato, okra, banana, apple, wheat and milk
• Chlordane - detected in apple, banana and cabbage
• Chlorfenvinfos – detected in bitter gourd, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, rice and wheat
• Heptachlor - detected in brinjal, okra, tomato, rice, milk and butter.

These four pesticides are among the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) identified by the Stockholm convention as the ‘dirty dozen’, pollutants which remain intact for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and people.

Now there is the issue of GM-related insecticide contamination. GM crops were promoted as ‘resistant’ to pesticides and insecticides, but are actually dependent on these inputs. On Devinder Sharma’s blog there is an article about a recent Canadian study which detected the widespread presence of Bt-related insecticide in the blood of 93 per cent pregnant women and 80 per cent of foetuses. There are indications that Bt-related insecticide disrupts foetal development. A few weeks ago the Stockholm Convention met in Geneva, and agreed to add endosulfan to the list of POPs to be removed from the global market by 2012. But the Stockholm Convention is unable to keep pace with a juggernaut of newer, more powerful, chemicals being pushed onto the marketplace.

An article by agriculture and trade policy analyst Bhaskar Goswami, Scars of the Green Revolution looks at the impacts of high dependence on pesticides in the Punjab. Pesticide consumption in the Punjab State stood at 923 grams per hectare in 2006, putting it in the ‘very-high-use’ bracket. Pesticide residues have been recorded in human beings, water, milk, vegetables and several other foods at far higher than permissible limits. Incidence of cancer and other ailments have reached alarming levels and large numbers of farmers and their families from the Malwa region regularly travel to Rajasthan for treatment for cancer. There are instances of children as young as 10 years old suffering from arthritis, and looking prematurely aged with greying hair. The pest population adapts to the pesticides and becomes resistant, putting farmers on a treadmill of higher pesticide application, with increased application of the agricultural inputs that have caused the problems.

Goswami’s article explains how agriculture in the Punjab faces other serious problems besides over use of pesticides. Farmer debt has increased with more expenditure on farm machinery. Debt as a proportion of farmer income increased from 68 per cent in 1997 to 84 per cent in 2008. Intensive monoculture of wheat and rice has displaced a wider range of crops including corn, groundnut, barley and rapeseed. Livestock diversity had dwindled, and is now dominated by just three breeds of cows, buffaloes and sheep and two breeds of goats and poultry. Water stress is increasing, with overexploitation of groundwater. In more than half of districts, water levels have reduced by 30 centimetres. The depleted water is contaminated with residues, and air is polluted by burning straw. Yet, the government Working Group on Agriculture Production recommends this ‘Punjab Model’ of framing is recommended for replication by all states across India.

The latest issue of the public health charity Friends of the Human Race e-zine is focussed on alternatives to chemical intensive agriculture in India. Town of Kulithalai in Tamil Nadu, waste segregation, transformed, biodegradable waste fed to cows and composted. An article by Jaison J Jerome looks at organic alternatives to using dangerous pesticides, focussing on long term soil fertility with cow dung, green manure and crop rotation. Pest infestations are far less frequent, and when they do occur alternatives to pesticides, such as sticky tape, light traps, herbal extracts and types of fungi have proved effective. Micro-organisms can be effective in removing a wide range of pathogens, and are non-toxic even if accidentally ingested, and have been used effectively in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, composting and solid waste management. There is an article from a farmer who worked on a tea plantation in Kerala for nearly ten years, repeatedly exposed to pesticides, witnessed banned pesticides being used, and was poisoned with Monocrotophos. He was diagnosed with a type of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, in 2001, and fortunately has been well since receiving treatment. My article has more information about the alarming levels of banned pesticides on India’s food crops.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Airport Fuel Supply - the Real Fire Risks

In August 2010 two men were convicted of plotting to blow up JFK Airport’s fuel farm and underground pipelines running under the Queens neighbourhood, aiming to killing thousands of people. Subsequently, one of the men was jailed for life, and the other for 15 years. JFK’s fuel farm’s steel cylindrical tanks hold 121 million litres of aviation fuel. The prospect of terrorist attacks on tanks holding millions of litres of highly flammable fuel, and pipelines running under densely populated areas, sounds alarming, but the plot was unfeasible, more talk than action. There is no oxygen inside the fuel farm or pipelines so ignition is impossible, and unauthorized use of the heavy machinery required for digging underground and puncturing fuel tanks and thick steel pipelines would be highly conspicuous. In the unlikely event of interference, it would immediately be detected with alarm systems.

Puncturing a fuel farm would require an air strike or a ground to air missile. This is what occurred when the Lam Luk Ka oil depot in Bangkok was targeted during anti government protests on 21 April 2010. A grenade fired from the motorway, just 200 metres away, hit one of the depot’s 19 tanks, T-401D, which supplies Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it took an hour to extinguish the fire. The tank was holding 9 million litres of fuel at the time. The grenade made a 4 centimetre hole in the tank but did not ignite the main body of fuel as it did not penetrate the protective double layering.

In New York, the mundane reality is a series of accidental leaks from the fuel pipeline to JFK and La Guardia airports, which runs under Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens neighbourhoods. Stephen Muther, Vice President of Buckeye Partners, the firm operating the pipeline, admitted that the firm’s operation of the, has been prone to ‘mishaps’. In 1985 a construction worker drove a digger into a valve in the Staten Island section, spilling over 130,000 litres of fuel into the street and dozens of homes were evacuated. In 2009, a maintenance worker accidentally drilled a hole in the pipeline running just 1.2 metres under Queens, and firefighters poured flame retardant foam on nearly 1,900 litres of fuel that escaped into the street. The fuel supply to JFK has also polluted water. In autumn 2008 a leak was discovered in a pipeline running only a metre deep under an environmentally sensitive marshland area near one of JFK’s runways. Six months later over 340,000 litres of fuel had been recovered and the full extent of the spill was still unknown. JFK’s fuel farm also had a mishap, an electrical fire, in May 2008, and flights were delayed for nearly an hour until the fire was extinguished.

The risk of jet fuel fires occurs when the fuel is accidentally exposed to air, and ground crew are the most at risk. Planes are refuelled with hoses or hydrant dispenser vehicles which tuck under the wing. On 5th September 2001 a 24 year old ground service worker died from injuries when refuelling a British Airways Boeing 777 at Denver Airport. A large ball of fire engulfed the hydrant truck and the aircraft’s left wing. Witnesses thought that fuel leaked when a hose either came loose or ruptured.

Fuel depots and refineries, far from the airport site, are more vulnerable to fire than fuel farms. Overall, considering the global scale of operations, airport fuel supply is well managed, but when accidents do occur the risks to people and the environment are serious. The FBI was called in to investigate whether a fire at a petrol and jet fuel depot in the city of Bayamon in Puerto Rico, which ignited on 23rd October 2009, was started intentionally. An explosion triggered fire which spread to 21 of the 40 tanks on the site, and sent 2.8 magnitude earthquake forces which were felt in several neighbourhoods. Firefighters battled with a blaze for two days, over 1,500 people were evacuated and thick smoke billowed over the area. Suspicions were raised by graffiti reading ‘Boom, fire, RIP, Gulf’ in three locations in the vicinity, but the investigation concluded that the cause of the explosion was a fuel leak which occurred while one of the tanks was being filled. This created an enormous cloud of gas vapour, which was then ignited by an unidentified source.

On 5th May 2010 a tanker truck exploded at a loading dock at the AGE Refinery in San Antonio, Texas. Two workers were injured, one critically, but a major disaster was averted. More than 100 firefighters worked for six hours to contain the fire and prevent it from igniting 12 nearby tanks of jet fuel. Fire Chief Charles Hood said that if this had happened the area ‘could have seen a major explosion big enough to kill people a half-mile away’.

Underground jet fuel pipelines are entangled with gas, petroleum, and water supplies, bringing the risk of an explosion if they are accidentally punctured during maintenance work. In 2004 a jet fuel pipeline supplying San Jose Airport, running under Walnut Creek in San Francisco, exploded during construction of a water supply pipeline. An excavator punctured a high pressure pipeline and five workers were killed and four suffered serious burns. Workers had accidentally cut into the fuel pipeline, resulting in a huge explosion and a fire ball several storeys high. In May 1989 a train derailed in Muscoy in San Bernadino County, California, killing four people and destroying seven homes. Two weeks later, after residents had returned to their homes, an underground jet fuel pipeline damaged by the accident ruptured and exploded, killing two people and burning down 11 homes.

Road tankers supplying fuel to airports are more vulnerable to spills and fires than pipelines, as traffic accidents can result in leakage of fuel and highly flammable vapour. Whilst the amounts of fuel carried in trucks are relatively small in comparison to the millions in refineries and depots, they can pose a risk when accidents occur in populated areas. A truck towing two trailers of aviation fuel along Highway 20 in a rural area near Colusa, California on 25th March 2008 caught fire when a piece of metal from the truck dragged along the highway and sparks ignited the fuel. Firefighters contained grass fires on both sides of the road and decided to let the blaze burn itself out, sending a pall of black smoke over the area. A few hours later nothing remained but the frame of the truck and melted metal all over the highway.

On 17th June 2010 a jet fuel truck overturned at the intersection of Highway 31 in Montgomery, Alabama. Nearly 19,000 litres of jet fuel were spilled, which took about 40 firefighters several hours to clean up. Just ten days later, on 27th June 2010, disaster was narrowly averted, when a tanker carrying jet fuel to TF Green Airport in Massachusetts flipped over on its side in the town of Foxboro. The accident occurred only 35 metres from people sleeping in their homes. All the fuel, over 45,000 litres, gushed out. Firefighters from 14 communities joined the TF Green Airport HazMat team and covered the spill in foam to prevent it catching fire. It was fortunate that the tanker skidded onto grass. If it had crashed into hard pavement, it would have been likely to produce sparks, which would have ignited the fuel into a dangerous fireball. Two days after the Foxboro incident, on 29th June, a plane being prepared for flight at Kickapoo Airport in Texas leaked over 3,000 litres of fuel onto the parking area. The airport hazmat team and ten units from the Wichita fire service sprayed foam on the spilled fuel, then trucks dumped sand to absorb it.

The litany of minor accidents in the jet fuel supply chain to US airports continued over the following few months. Fortunately, there were no casualties but the incidents added to the workload of America’s fire and HazMat teams.

• On 14th July 2010 over 7,500 litres of jet fuel leaked from a tanker loading a fuel station at Sea-Tac Airport (Seattle-Tacoma).
• On 22nd September 2010 a section of the road between Farmville and Chesterfield County in Virginia was closed down after a 30,000 litre tanker spilled jet fuel.
• On 24th September 2010 a truck overturned near terminal 3 at Chicago O'Hare Airport, spilling 'hundreds of gallons' of fuel and causing delays.
• 30th September 2010 - The northbound lanes of 805 highway San Diego were closed for four hours after a tanker carrying jet fuel jack knifed and collided with the guardrail. The truck fortunately only spilled a few litres of diesel on the road as it had just delivered over 29,500 litres of jet fuel to Brown Field Airport.
• 7th December 2010 – An accident in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, involved three vehicles. No jet fuel spilled on the road but the process of transferring the fuel into another tanker took several hours. The highway was closed for three hours.

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