Pesticides have been blamed in deaths of nearly two dozen school children in rural India. The students were served tainted lunches Tuesday at their school in Gadamal village and began fainting within hours. By the Wednesday, 23 children, ages 5 to 12, had died.
According to officials, the rice in their meals had been tainted with organophosphates, a common insecticide, and was not washed properly before it was cooked. A container of the insecticide was found in the school’s cooking area but it is not known whether it was the source of the contamination.
Organophosphates were developed in Germany and became a popular deterrent for pests. They are, however, extremely toxic. So much so that the EPA has tried to limit their availability to the public. They’ve even asked manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate or limit their use in residential areas. However, small amounts are still allowed for industrial farming purposes. Unfortunately, the same restrictions do not exist in India.
The insecticide can enter the body via ingestion, inhalation, or even skin contact. Once in the system, organophosphates begin to inhibit cholinesterase, an enzyme in the human nervous system. "They're considered nerve agents because they have the same mechanism of action as nerve gases like sarin," says Emory University toxicologist Dana Boyd Barr. "You end up suffocating because you are essentially paralyzed."
A few of the victims were buried in front of the school Wednesday in protest. Officials are still waiting on lab results for more details on the source of the chemicals.