This month, more than 500 people have been hospitalized in southern India with a mysterious illness. Lead and nickel were found in blood samples from those hospitalized and organochlorine, normally found in pesticides, was also found in some water samples.

Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in the Departments of International and Comparative Labor as well as Labor Relations, Law, and History in Cornell University’s ILR School. Her research focuses on the intersections of farming, agricultural extension, land tenure, and climate change in India. She says causes for ‘mystery illnesses,’ especially in marginalized areas, are hard to identify given the multiple risk factors that are a part of domestic life in these regions. 


Besky says:

“This case in Andhra Pradesh is certainly alarming, but it is just another example of how ‘mystery illnesses’ especially in rural, poor, and otherwise marginalized areas are usually much more complicated than single, identifiable point-source cause. Hunger, warming temperatures, zoonotic diseases, industrial practices, and pesticide exposure intertwine to ensure not only that ‘causality’ is difficult to determine, but that ‘risk’ is firmly part of intimate spaces and domestic life. 

“Where exactly did the chemicals come from? We will likely never know. Mosquito abatement programs, industrial pollution, and pesticide-intensive agriculture are all means by which toxins enter the water system. Chemicals, in form of sprayable pesticides or aerial fumigants, are hard to discipline despite the user’s best stated intentions. With gusts of air, chemicals drift across fields and children’s heads while they play. They seep into soils and into water supplies.

“In this case, it was in the water, it seems. People reported seeing their water discolored and it tasted different, too. Some of the town’s water was tested by All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), which reported that it contained dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). DDT, while banned in blanket fashion in many places in the world, is only banned for agricultural use in India. DDT is still used to fumigate public spaces as part of mosquito control programs. In recent years, South India has seen an uptick in dengue cases, and with these cases, expanded control programs. But it’s not just DDT. Water tests revealed multiple other pesticides and herbicides in the water in extremely elevated numbers.” 

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