A pest is an unwanted life that is perceived, for what ever reason, to be detrimental to humans, and therefore be eliminated – if not eliminated, then controlled, reduced in number, or at the least repelled. Thus pesticides are substances used to ‘manage’ creatures. Known as crop protection products, pesticides are, in their broadest sense, synonymous with insecticides.

Pesticides contain organic and inorganic compounds. That is to say, their ingredients can be of animal, vegetable or mineral, and chemical origin. They are produced as liquids, sprays, granules, dusts and powders. And, they are all lethal to human and non-human lives.

Killing Backfires

India is the largest producer of pesticides in Asia but ranks twelfth for their use. Every one has heard of the disastrous effects of DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane). It persists in the soil for over a decade. BHC (Benzene Hexachloride) is worse because it remains longer. They both damage our reproductive systems. Other variations and types of pesticides are not very much better.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in December 2019 addressed the issue of pyrethroids exposure in humans and found that contrary to pyrethroids being considered safe, they affect the heart. Ever since DDT and similar compounds were phased out in the West, pyrethroids which are naturally occurring pesticides found in chrysanthemum flowers have been extensively used.

According to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2019, on-the-job exposure to high levels of pesticides raised the risk of heart disease and stroke in men. Short term health problems in humans arising from pesticide use consist of issues such as stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, dizziness and diarrhoea, but long term effects include cancer, birth defects, disruption of the endocrine system, toxicity to the immune system and neurological toxicity and developmental toxicity.

Pesticides not only degrade the soil but can unintentionally pollute wells and all other sources of water because they easily percolate through soil and get carried to water bodies as runoff; and, air pollution results because they drift outside the intended area when sprayed.

Insecticides Insects
Herbicides Weeds
Fungicides Fungi and Mould
Nematicides Nematodes
Molluscicides Snails
Rodenticides Rodents
Miticides Mites and Ticks
Bactericides Bacteria

Hand sanitizers prevent the growth of bacteria with chemicals such a triclosans and parabens linked to dangerous health problems. Both alcohol and alcohol-free sanitizers are toxic due to the fragrant chemicals rubbed on skin. In short, they are harmful for the human immune system. Even anti-bacterial soap may do more harm than good.

Pesticides are harmful to all life, not only the species targeted to be done away with. Also let us not forget that water consumption and waste generated during manufacture of pesticides is toxic and pollutant. In 2018 American researchers found that marine mammals such as dolphins, manatees, seals and whales which evolved to make water their primary habitat, had lost their ability to make a gene that defends humans and other land-dwelling mammals from the neurotoxic effects of particular man-made pesticides.

Pesticide manufacturers in India have about 270 crop chemicals registered and each of these molecules have about 150 product brands. In addition, the unorganised sector sells unregistered and spurious chemicals to farmers.

In 2017 the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission disclosed that at least 40 farmers died and over 2,000 had been hospitalised due to passive inhalation of pesticides in Vidarbha and Marathwada and the state’s pesticide manufacturers and government officials were responsible for it. The pesticides that caused deaths in Yavatmal: acephate, monocrotophos, diafenthurion, combination of carbendazium and manocoxzeb imidacloprid. It is not surprising that 100 banned pesticides in other countries are used in India, e.g. monocrotophos is banned in 60 countries. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) was set up to find out the reason for the Vidarbha ‘pesticide deaths’. The probe panel listed extra height gained by cotton crop, wide-spread use of pesticide cocktails, high-density plantation, non-use of protective gear while spraying, etc. as factors. However, the basic cause citied by all investigators was the lethal mixing and indiscriminate use of legal and illegal pesticides.

In January 2018 Maharashtra decided to formulate a new policy to enable the state government to trace of all pesticides sold to farmers, thus ensuring that only those that had been registered with the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee were sold. Then in view of 272 farmers of the state having died between 2014-18 from accidental pesticide inhalation, to prevent further deaths due to spraying farms, the state Agriculture Department in September 2018 banned 5 pesticides but only for 2 months: profefonos 40% + cypermethrin 4%; fipronil 40% + imidacloprid 40%; acephate 75%; difenthiron 50%; and monochrotophos 36%.

Despite this, pesticide poisoning cases occurred in 2018 at Yavatmal, a major cotton growing district. And, again 31 persons were affected in August 2019. They had to be admitted to the Government Medical College’s (GMC) hospital but the number of deaths was not publicly disclosed. The persons had been spraying pesticides on crops and had inadvertently inhaled them. The administration was meant to provide safety kits but it is possible they may not have been used or even received.

There is a train called the Punjab Cancer Express that runs from Bathinda to Bikaner. The cancer-affected who travel on it are small farmers and every day 30 to 35 new cases are seen at Faridkot Medical College. Why?

The farmers live in a disturbing cesspool of toxicity, a result of excessive and unregulated use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They use 923 grams of pesticides per hectare, way above the national average of 570 grams per hectare. Worse, they use the empty pesticide cans to store water and food.

Also there has been a continuous steady rise in the number of cancer patients of all ages in western Odisha’s agriculture-intensive district of Bargarh where the smell of pesticides fills the air. Paddy is grown here, not once but twice a year, and for this farmers use pesticides such as pyrethroid, organophosphate, thiocarbamate and neonicotenide which are in WHO’s Class II hazardous category. The poor farmers, who only know that the pesticides they use kill 80% of pests, do not realise that they are harmful and carcinogenic to themselves and so spray them in their fields without putting on protective gear.

A study by Lucknow’s Queen Mary Hospital in January 2023 found that in the previous 10 months pesticides in breast milk had led to the death of as many as 111 newborns in Maharajganj district. Pesticides present in breast milk of non-vegetarian mothers were thrice as much as compared to vegetarian mothers. The cause was non-veg food and also chemical farming.

In fact the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been undertaking regular nationwide surveys on commodities like milk, khoa, chhenna, paneer, ghee, butter, curd and ice cream which are tested for quality and safety covering pesticide residues, heavy metals, crop contaminants, melamine and microbiological parameters. In 2022 the FSSAI survey was done in 12 states of which 10 were affected by Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) in cattle. The aim of such surveys is to find out the adverse affects of antibiotics and veterinary drugs in affected cattle and the spraying of insecticides in the cattle sheds resulting in residual contamination in milk.


In February 2016, the first global assessment of the threat to creatures, including some 20,000 species of wild bees that pollinate the world’s plants was released in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a group affiliated with the United Nations. The report said farming exposed these insects to pesticides, and bees were under attack from parasites and pathogens as well. Chemicals such as neonicotinoids were to blame, and even if pesticides levels were not lethal on individual insects, concentrations in the hives had long-term effects on bee colonies.

In 2019 the College of Agriculture, Pune, stated that about 45% of crop losses were on account of infestation by pests resistant to pesticides and insecticides and the collapse of the insect biodiversity because natural predators that consumed harmful pests were fast disappearing. For example populations of praying mantis, dragonfly, beetles and honey bee populations were fast dwindling. In view of this five species of bio-pests were being cultivated in the college labs – in other words pest vs. pest would supplement organic farming practices.

Killing for Sweetness

Farmers of Maharashtra catch, kill and sell white grub beetles which pose a threat to their sugarcane plants. The beetles lay eggs on fields around June which hatch in a fortnight. The larvae live for 7 months and chew at the roots of plants before becoming pupae. The beetles emerge with the first monsoon showers the following June and lay eggs. Chemical pest control has been rejected by farmers and many have opted for this mode of biological control by intervening in the lifecycle of the beetles by killing them between June and August just before they lay eggs. For every kilogram of dead beetles the Vasantdada Sugar Institute pays Rs 300.

Few know that a side-effect of the sugar industry upon animals is the common harvesting practice of burning cane fields when all life like insects, rats and snakes residing in the fields are charred to death.

Another side-effect is that leopards, known to live undisturbed by humans in sugar cane fields till harvest time between January and April. Man-animal conflicts arise then because leopards taken by surprise, attack humans. Studies have shown the density of leopards in the sugar cane fields of Junnar (Maharashtra) is higher than in reserved forests. For example, in February 2018, three leopard cubs were charred to death in a sugar cane field near Ozar (Pune-Nashik Highway, Maharashtra). The fire was suspected to have started from a short circuit in an overhead power cable.

Non-agricultural Pesticides

Humans do not like to live with flies, ants, rodents, cockroaches, fungi, mosquitoes, bugs, etc. and go all out to find substances, ways and means to destroy them.

Such non-agricultural pesticides also kill insects but different ones to those found in fields, like cockroaches in homes; whereas some other pesticides are used to fumigate buildings and ships. In the public health domain, pesticides are utilised to control the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue and cholera.

Repellents claim not to kill as in the case of mosquito repellent mats, vaporisers, coils, as also creams applied on human skin. But these inhalants are quite harmful, often resulting in severe allergies. Herbal repellents made from natural oils with their manufacturers having a licence issued by the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha & Homoeopathy) are available, but are not necessarily safer with regard to human respiratory problems.

The wood, paint, carpet, and paper industries utilise pesticides to protect their products. For example, wood guard when applied on wood stops white-ant attacks, and naphthalene/moth-balls stop wool from being infested with moths and their larvae. But, few know that naphthalene balls are probably one of the most deadly pesticides.

Moth-balls are not meant to be used in open areas (where the vapours can be inhaled) to repel wildlife, nevertheless 2017 onwards many Wardha farmers of Maharashtra began using moth-balls as protection for crops, not only against rodents but wild boars. A couple of moth-balls tied to 2-3 feet sticks erected at a distance of 15 feet around the field keep them at bay. The farmers first tried phorate/thimet, an insecticide, but stopped its use since it could kill their cattle.

Harmful to Everyone

According to The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic pollutants, nine of the twelve most dangerous and persistent chemicals are pesticides.

Plants: first and foremost, not only weeds but other plants can get destroyed in fields where pesticides are used. Moreover, the pesticides get absorbed by plants and thus the edible produce like grains, vegetables and fruits easily get pesticide ridden.

Water life: it is common for fish and other small creatures living in water to die due to toxic herbicides and fungicides that land up in the water they live in.

Bees: insecticides may not directly kill honey bees, but they damage their nervous systems resulting in entire colonies of bees dying all over the world. They are natural pollinators and without them agricultural productivity will drastically drop.

Birds: the number of insect-eating birds has come down because their food has been eliminated through the use of insecticides. Also a study by ornithologists revealed that dead birds had pesticides which caused neuromuscular disorders. They had failed to judge and dodge vehicles due to biomagnification resulting from pesticide consumption. One of the main reasons for the fall in India’s sparrow population is use of pesticides. (Other reasons cited are electromagnetic radiations form mobile towers that disorient them, and the felling of trees.)

Animals: if wild animals enter pesticide treated fields they can easily get poisoned. (For example in September 2016, a male elephant died on a farm in Assam’s Nagaon district, allegedly after eating paddy sprayed with pesticide.) Domestic animals, including livestock, can be adversely and tragically affected too.

Amphibians and Reptiles: According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 1,532 species of Anurans (frogs) and 825 species of reptiles in the world are critically endangered and vulnerable due to agriculture and its management practices (read pesticides).

Humans: particular pesticides target particular species, but getting exposed to them results in adverse effects upon all species, including humans. No wonder pesticides need be kept away from food or livestock feeds and be secured firmly to prevent spillage during transport.

In 2011, the World Health Organisation estimated that every year 3 million people suffer unintentional or accidental pesticide poisoning, of which 2.20 million die. Children are at greater risk from exposure because they are smaller in size and since their organs are growing they are more susceptible. In 2013 pesticide (that resembles mustard oil) accidentally got used for midday meals and 23 school kids in Bihar died. Pesticide poisoning can occur due to simply breathing common bug killers. People have been found dead in closed rooms a day after pest control treatment was carried out.

It is certainly not safe to breathe pesticides, yet people are eating them at every meal. For instance, fruit like strawberries and grapes are sprayed and even if washed thoroughly with a mild mixture of white vinegar and water, or hydrogen peroxide and water, all the pesticide that they have absorbed can not be removed. No scrubbing is possible. Even those items that can be, and have been scrubbed, continue to contain pesticides. Genetically Modified foods, like corn and soy, are worse because they are engineered to produce pesticides themselves.

In 2017 the Voice Society (New Delhi) conducted tests on 12 brands of rice for residues of 37 pesticides as per requirements of Food Safety & Standards Regulations, 2011. Traces of pesticides were found in all (including an organic brand which therefore did not meet the standard requirement) but they were below the detection limit of 0.01 mg/kg.

Unknown to the majority of Indians, 2014 onwards the National Crime Records Bureau began listing “accidental intake of insecticides/pesticides” as a separate category and 12,975 people died due to this in 2014 and 2015. In order words, one person died every 90 minutes. (The number of deaths in the years that follow as of 2018 have not been declared.) Unfortunately 30% of the pesticides permitted to be used in India are highly toxic and harmful.

According to the American non-profit organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG), the 2016 Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables grown with the highest amount of pesticides are strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. Earlier apples had topped the list for pesticide residues.

The EWG have a 2016 Clean 15 list too: avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage, sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangos, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and cauliflower.

Produce of India couldn’t be much different in their pesticide residues since the items tested were conventionally grown. Rankings of all the 50 items tested can be seen at

Ten important reasons why people should try their best to stay away from pesticides and pesticide ridden foods are:

• Increase in Allergies & Asthma

• Obesity

• Infertility & Sterility

• Endocrine, Reproductive & Birth Defects

• Cancer

• Alzheimer’s Disease

• Diabetes

• Lower IQ & Autism

• Neurological Disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease

• Damage to Liver & Kidneys

Interestingly, in 2017 the Supreme Court asked the Government of India why 93 types of pesticides which are banned abroad were not banned in India and what could be done to phase out these harmful pesticides in a time bound manner while simultaneously promoting organic farming.

In 2018 the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, UK, urged the Government of India to impose a ban on hazardous insecticides because they cause over 1,50,000 suicide deaths globally every year and that in other countries such bans had helped reduce suicides.

Some Alternative Natural Substances

• Neem

• Salt

• Mineral Oil

• Cayenne Pepper

• Soap Suds

• Citrus Oil

• Eucalyptus Oil

• Onion & Garlic

• Tobacco

The 18 pesticides that are banned

• Aluminium phosphide

• Bifenthrin

• Carbosulfan

• Chlorfenapyr

• Chlorothalonil

• Dazomet

• Diflubenzuron

• Ethofenprox

• Fenpropathrin

• Iprodione

• Kasugamycin

• Mepiquat chloride

• Metaldehyde

• Paraquat dichloride

• Pretilachlor

• Propargite

• Propineb

• Zinc phosphide

Banned – but not yet!

Acting on the advice of an expert committee, and acknowledging that most of the following pesticides involve risk to humans and animals and are highly toxic to honey bees and birds and that they also contaminate water bodies and underground water, the Union Ministry of Agriculture passed an order to ban the following 12 pesticides from 1 January 2018:

• Benomyl

• Carbaryl

• Diazinon

• Fenarimol

• Fenthion

• Linuron

• Methoxy Ethyl Mercury Chloride

• Methyl Parathion

• Sodium Cyanide

• Thiometon

• Tridemorph

• Trifluralin

The 27 pesticides which were to be again reviewed in 2018 were eventually banned via a draft gazette notification in May 2020 which resulted in strong objections from manufacturers. Then the Government informed the Supreme Court that it had merely issued a proposal draft Notification in February 2023 to lift the ban on the 24 or the 27 above mentioned pesticides:

• Acephate

• Atrazine

• Benfuracarb

• Butachlor

• Captan

• Carbendazim

• Carbofuran

• Chlopyrophos

• Deltamethrin

• Dicofol

• Dimethoate

• Dinocap

• Diuron

• 2,4-D

• Malathion

• Mancozeb

• Methomyl

• Monocrotophos

• Oxyfluorfen

• Pendimethalin

• Quinalphos

• Sulfosulfuron

• Thiodicarb

• Thiophanate Methyl

• Thiram

• Zineb

• Ziram

Furthermore, the following 6 pesticides will also be banned 31 December 2020 onwards:

• Alachlor

• Dichlorvos

• Phorate

• Phosphamidon

• Triazophos

• Trichlorfon

Meanwhile, the draft Pesticide Management Bill, 2017 (to replace the Insecticides Act of 1968) is open to public comments by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. As pointed out the fundamental problem is that the ministry is the regulator and the promoter of pesticides.

Page last updated on 15/04/24