Pesticides is the point, not bottled water or soft drinks

In February, we released a study on pesticide residues in bottled water being sold in the market. We reported how we found legalised pesticides in bottled water. In other words, the norms for regulating pesticide levels in these bottles were so designed that pesticide residues would not be detected.

We had no intentions of following up this study with investigations in other products. Then our readers wrote to us. They wanted to know: if what we had to say about the bottled water industry was correct, then what about soft drink manufacturers? After all, they all used water as a raw material. They also sourced their water largely from groundwater. We had, they said, a responsibility to tell.

By May, it was also evident that government was prevaricating on legislating the amended, stringent norms for bottled water. Industry pressure, we were told by wags, was enormous. Stakes were high.

Something was fishy. Most of the big players in the bottled water industry, we knew, had the capability to treat and clean the water. They also catered to hapless consumers with little choice but to pay more for water, than for milk. Municipal supplies were unreliable. Theirs was a thriving business. Nothing, not even a little pesticide, would hold it back. Then why the opposition?

Could it be that the stakes were even higher than we had imagined? Suppose, what was really at stake was not the bottled water industry and its Rs 1000 crore business, but the soft drink industry and its estimated Rs 6000-7000 crore business. Indians drink on an average 6.6 billion bottles of soft drinks each year and business is flourishing. Suppose, just for a minute, that this industry has skeletons, which would come tumbling out if the bottled water industry was further regulated.

No, we told ourselves, this could not be true. After all, this mega industry of the beautiful people is well established. It is old. It is reputed. Giants of the corporate world control it, who swear by responsibility and citizenship.

But we were stunned. All bottles of soft drinks analysed at the Centre’s pollution monitoring laboratory had pesticides, in much higher quantities than considered safe for humans (see: Colanisation’s dirty dozen). The sum of all pesticides in the PepsiCo brands added up to 0.0180 mg/l, 36 times higher than the European Union’s limit (EEC) for total pesticides. Coca-Cola brands had 0.0150 mg/l of all pesticides, 30 times more than the same EEC limit.

Even more startling we found that this human health-impacting industry is more or less unregulated. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) had, at least, some kind of mandatory standards for the bottled water industry. In comparison, nothing exists for this ‘food’ industry. It is regulated under a plethora of agencies and standards but most are meaningless or plain ridiculous. It gets licensed under the Food Products Order and further regulated under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. The BIS standards, set for it roughly 10 years ago, are voluntary. In other words, this massive industry has been massively let off. Worse, none of the pieces of legislation even mention the fact that raw water — over 90 per cent of the finished product — needs scrutiny. The limit for deadly arsenic and lead in soft drinks has been set 50 times higher than the allowed standards for bottled water or drinking water. Did the regulators just forget these facts? Or was it deliberate amnesia?

Let us be clear, this is not a case involving little companies struggling to make ends meet, that regulators know cannot be regulated. This involves only two large companies, which incidentally also control the world markets. More importantly, this involves an industry that is a food industry. It impacts our health. Directly.

But there are even bigger stakes at hand. The study on pesticides in bottled water brought us some predictable responses. Industry argued it is unfair to ask for stringent regulation on pesticides. We cannot afford it, industry said, and these norms are unnecessary because the pesticide residues found are in such small quantities that they are harmless. Amazing. What wisdom from such wise people. Pesticides are deadly in small quantities. They accumulate over time in our bodies. Increasing evidence shows that some pesticides — such as chlorpyrifos, a popular insecticide in India — are deadly even if the exposure is tiny. The other, I consider facetious, argument is why only target bottled water. The food we eat, say these great critics, is far more contaminated. Indians eat much more than their daily dose.

But they are missing the point. Pesticide, not bottled water or soft drinks, is the point. It is imperative to have a policy for safe use of pesticides. A policy for safe pesticides. It is clear that once our soil, food and water is contaminated, it will be prohibitively expensive to clean. We have no choice but to work on the basis of the precautionary principle. For this we need seriously stringent regulations, to curtail use and to work towards new strategies for ‘safe’ substances. We cannot afford to clean up after the poisoning. We have no antidote. Whatever the industry and government may believe.

I do not know how the two corporate giants will receive our findings. But for me, the more important matter is if you, our readers, believe that we have done justice to the question you asked us. The consumer in the free world, they say, is king. So let the king pass sentence.

— Sunita Narain