Just last month, hundreds of people fell sick with a mysterious illness in the city of Eluru in India. The cause of the illness initially remained unknown, leading to a huge amount of confusion and concern, but pesticides and heavy metals have since been pointed to as the prime suspects.
Just over 600 people fell acutely sick in early December 2020 in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, displaying a wide range of symptoms from anxiety and seizures to burning eyes and vomiting. Two people, both in their 50s, died after falling sick with these symptoms. Fortunately, there have been no new reported cases since December.
“I cannot recall what exactly happened to me on that day. I woke up and had breakfast at 8 am as usual. After washing my hands, I felt dizzy and sat on the bed and all of a sudden suffered a seizure,” one person told the New Indian Express in December.
Doctors were stumped, but experts from an array of worldwide and Indian scientific institutions quickly started to collect samples from the patients and the local environment in a quest to identify the cause of the illnesses.
The state Health Minister said all of the patients tested negative for COVID-19, which had become a concern since Andhra Pradesh was one of the worst-affected states in India with at least 885,985 reported COVID-19 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID dashboard as of 18 January 2021. Blood samples also did not show any evidence of a viral infection and bacterial infections were also ruled out.
Many of the other findings were mixed and not so straightforward. As reported by the Hindu newspaper, scientists at the All India Institute Of Medical Science (AIIMS) reported that the patients’ blood samples contained traces of heavy metals, such as lead and nickel, while local milk samples also contained nickel. On the other hand, the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology did not find worrying levels of heavy metals in the local water. They did, however, find that blood samples contained lead and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). While DDT has been banned for agricultural use worldwide, it’s still used to control malaria in some parts of the world.
These findings led the government of Andhra Pradesh to conclude on December 16 that pesticides leaching into the water supply was the "main reason" for the illness. However, it’s not totally understood why hundreds of people suddenly become so acutely sick in December.
Some have noted that parts of Andhra Pradesh have been battered by intensive agriculture and industry for several decades now, and it’s been noted that a variety of agrochemicals and pesticides have applied extensively in the upland region. It’s been speculated that the sudden rush of illness seen in December was a knock-on effect on the heavy rainfall and floods seen in previous months, which could have washed the chemicals into local water systems.
Some of the scientific and medical institutes working on the investigation, including the World Health Organisation, are calling for an expert panel to look into how exactly these pesticides managed to make their way into human bodies.