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Monday 21 April 2014

Fatal Indian school meal contained concentrated pesticide

Schoolchildren wash their plates before having their free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, at Brahimpur village in Chapra district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar July 19, 2013. The midday meal scheme of giving school pupils a free lunch is the largest such programme in the world. It has been widely lauded as one of the most successful welfare measures in India, home to a quarter of the world's hungry, because it also boosts school enrolments and helps children to continue studies. For millions of poor families, the lunch is the only full meal their children eat in a day. That encourages them to send them to school, and not keep them home to help with chores. For this reason, despite being poorly managed, the scheme draws a lot of support from non-governmental organisations, rights activists and the United Nations. Picture taken July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: HEALTH FOOD EDUCATION SOCIETY)
Schoolchildren wash their plates before having their free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, at Brahimpur village in Chapra district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar

THE free school lunch that killed 23 Indian children last week was contaminated with concentrated pesticide which is not widely available, the district magistrate overseeing the police investigation told Reuters today.

The children fell ill within minutes of eating a meal of rice and potato curry in their one-room school in Bihar state on Tuesday, vomiting and convulsing with stomach cramps.

The deaths sparked protests in Bihar. The lunch was part of India's Mid-Day Meal Scheme that covers 120 million children and aims to tackle malnutrition and encourage school attendance. It had already drawn widespread complaints over food safety.

An initial forensic investigation found that the meal had been prepared with cooking oil that contained monocrotophos, an organophosphorus compound that is used as an agricultural pesticide, Ravindra Kumar, a senior police official, told reporters on Saturday.

The pesticide found in the oil was of a concentration more than five times that used in a commercial version, according to a forensic report.

"It is highly poisonous, it's highly toxic, and, therefore, it has to be diluted when used as commercial pesticides," said district magistrate Abhijit Sinha.

"Typically it has to be diluted five times. So one litre of monocrotophos is mixed with five litres of water."

Sinha said the concentrated form was not widely available and the pesticide was normally sold commercially in the diluted state.

Police said on Friday they suspected the cooking oil used in the meal was kept in a container previously used to store the pesticide. They are still looking for the headmistress of the school, who fled after the deaths.

The World Health Organisation describes monocrotophos as highly hazardous and that handling and application of it should be entrusted only to competently supervised and well-trained applicators.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says all waste and contaminated material associated with the chemical should be considered hazardous waste and destroyed in a special high temperature chemical incinerator facility.

Reuters

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