Leaving Punjab on the Cancer Train

train.jpg“…the first troubling clues in the late 1980s and early ’90s: Peacocks – India’s national bird – disappeared from the fields.”

A recent story on NPR discussed the “cancer train” in Punjab. The train is so named as it routinely carries about 60 patients and their families from Bathinda to the town of Bikaner in order to get treatment at the government’s regional cancer center. Studies now suggest that populations with high use of pesticides have an increased risk of cancer. This seems to be the case in Punjab, where the introduction of the Green Revolution in the 1960s not only led to increased production of agriculture but also adverse health outcomes. The NPR piece discusses how villages that use pesticides were shown to have higher rates of cancer than villages that did not use pesticides.

On a recent evening, just before the train arrives, waiting passengers wrapped in shawls sit glumly on the bare pavement. Vendors hawk tea and chapattis. “He has blood cancer,” says one man, explaining his upcoming journey by gesturing at his skinny, pale 16-year-old son, Jassa Singh, beside him. Another man points toward his little boy, and says bone cancer has attacked his hip.

A gaunt but dignified-looking man wearing a bright yellow turban says he is going to Bikaner for treatment of cancer in his throat. “It’s difficult to talk,” he says, pushing a button in a device inserted in his throat that makes his voice sound like a computer synthesizer.

It is important to note, however, that as with many public health studies – an association between pesticide use and cancer does not necessarily suggest a causal link. Many people are hesitant to blame the Green Revolution and new technologies on the prevalence of cancer in Punjab. Neverthless, it seems clear that the correlation with the higher rates of cancer can not be understated and suggests that environmental factors could quite possibly be the cause.

Researchers caution that the findings do not prove that pesticides are causing cancer. But they say the passengers crowding the cancer train are part of a medical mystery that could have repercussions around the world: Are the modern farming methods brought by the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s making people sick?

A study done by Punjab’s School of Public Health titled, Epidemiological Study of High Cancer among Rural Agricultural Community of Punjab in Northern India, found a statistically significant increase in cancer rates in high-pesticide areas. However, the study also suggested that industrial pollution, tobacco use and other factors could cause the elevated cancer rates in addition to, or instead of, pesticides. While the root cause may be unclear, it is clear that a number of factors are at play in Punjab – one example being illiteracy.

[Jarnail] Singh says he saw that many fellow farmers were overusing pesticides and not handling the toxic chemicals safely. Many farmers “get totally covered” by pesticides when they spray them – “in their hair, on their body, in their eyes,” he says. “And that got me thinking about, why aren’t we really looking at that, how that may affect the farmers?”

Critics say government leaders pushed the Green Revolution before they had safeguards in place to protect the population. Although pesticide containers have warning labels, many farmers in countries like India cannot read well. Government agents hold workshops to teach farmers how to use chemicals safely, but those infrequent lessons may not sink in.

Some farmers in the area say they spray their crops a dozen times or more a season, not one or two times as the pesticide labels instruct. And many say they do not bother wearing protective clothing.

Regardless of whether increased pesticide use is the cause of higher rates of cancer in Punjab, it is clear that a public health crisis exists. Often times the impact of these diseases is seen in subsequent generations. With the State indebted to new technologies and a lack of awareness among the population with regard to the use of new agricultural interventions, the cancer train will continue to transport patients from Punjab.

Also on NPR: India’s Farming ‘Revolution’ Heading For Collapse, ‘Green Revolution’ Trapping India’s Farmers In Debt.


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18 Responses to “Leaving Punjab on the Cancer Train”

  1. rr says:

    Wow, interesting post. My grandpa who also lived in a village and was a farmer succumbed to bone cancer in early 90s despite getting the best medical care. No one knows why he got the disease. We don't have it in the family genetically. Very interesting, this. Thanks for posting.

  2. rr says:

    Wow, interesting post. My grandpa who also lived in a village and was a farmer succumbed to bone cancer in early 90s despite getting the best medical care. No one knows why he got the disease. We don’t have it in the family genetically. Very interesting, this. Thanks for posting.

  3. Dave says:

    Monsanto is the most EVIL corporation known to man ..

    Germany has just banned monsanto's product from their country ..

    It IS the cause of much countless deaths each year worldwide ..

    Watch the following movie for more info on this evil beast corporation poisening our food supply:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=626208340

    Also watch "The Future of Food"

    ~Dave

  4. Dave says:

    Monsanto is the most EVIL corporation known to man ..

    Germany has just banned monsanto’s product from their country ..

    It IS the cause of much countless deaths each year worldwide ..

    Watch the following movie for more info on this evil beast corporation poisening our food supply:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6262083407501596844&ei=P8EJSrbzB6SkqgLNx8THCw&q=the+world+according+to+monsanto&hl=en

    Also watch “The Future of Food”

    ~Dave

  5. baingandabhartha says:

    not just pesticide but also groundwater contamination with industrial chemicals/heavy metals. Cancer is an epidemic of sorts in malwa.

  6. baingandabhartha says:

    not just pesticide but also groundwater contamination with industrial chemicals/heavy metals. Cancer is an epidemic of sorts in malwa.

  7. […] for the modern, American way. [NPR] The downsides today include high cancer rates from overuse of pesticides and mishandling of chemicals, soil depletion, high indebtedness leading to farmer suicides, and a […]

  8. […] affected with Cancer in Punjab has been well documented. In fact almost a year ago, The Langar Hall had highlighted this sad state of affair in […]

  9. Harinder says:

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 6:37 am FEROZEPUR: A high-level team of medical experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Delhi that visited cancer belt in the Malwa region to study reasons behind epidemic spread of cancer in state and cancer control programme, revealed that data supplied to ICMR by Punjab health department regarding the incidence of cancer in Punjab is much less than its national average.
    The official data have shown that there are 10 to 40 for every one lakh people, who have been found suffering from carcinogenic diseases in the state against the national average of 90 to 100 persons per lakh.

  10. Harinder says:

    The 11-member team led by Dr GK Rath, Professor and Head, Department of Radiation and Oncology, All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, said that Punjab government was claiming that cancer has become rampant in Punjab, where agriculture is intensive and fertiliser and pesticides are used excessively, whereas the data made available to us reflects that Punjab is in a much better state in the country as far as the incidence of cancer is concerned. http://punjabnewsline.com/content/punjab-shows-in….

    For Amit Singh :—I TOLD U SO.
    Farming is a life substaining and giving profession and is a sure protection against cancer.
    Use your own GOD given faculity for analysis

  11. Harinder says:

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 6:37 am FEROZEPUR: A high-level team of medical experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Delhi that visited cancer belt in the Malwa region to study reasons behind epidemic spread of cancer in state and cancer control programme, revealed that data supplied to ICMR by Punjab health department regarding the incidence of cancer in Punjab is much less than its national average.
    The official data have shown that there are 10 to 40 for every one lakh people, who have been found suffering from carcinogenic diseases in the state against the national average of 90 to 100 persons per lakh.

  12. Harinder says:

    The 11-member team led by Dr GK Rath, Professor and Head, Department of Radiation and Oncology, All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, said that Punjab government was claiming that cancer has become rampant in Punjab, where agriculture is intensive and fertiliser and pesticides are used excessively, whereas the data made available to us reflects that Punjab is in a much better state in the country as far as the incidence of cancer is concerned. http://punjabnewsline.com/content/punjab-shows-in….

    For Amit Singh :—I TOLD U SO.
    Farming is a life substaining and giving profession and is a sure protection against cancer.
    Use your own GOD given faculity for analysis

  13. […] and the once mighty land of five rivers finds itself facing ecological (decreasing water table and poisoned through pesticides) and social disasters (drugs and sex-selective abortion, immediately come to mind), the upcoming […]

  14. Kamaljit singh says:

    Good article.I think pesticides and drinking water are main culprit.

  15. not just pesticide but also groundwater contamination with industrial chemicals/heavy metals. Cancer is an epidemic of sorts in malwa.

  16. not just pesticide but also groundwater contamination with industrial chemicals/heavy metals. Cancer is an epidemic of sorts in malwa.

  17. clean Taif says:

    Good article.I think pesticides and drinking water are main culprit