As a child, Anu Kumar saw first-hand the terrible effects of Indian women and young children being exposed to pesticides and unsafe drinking water.
As an adult, she decided to return to the country she grew up in to do something about it.
“I saw plenty of pollution growing up because my dad was in the air force and we moved around every two or three years,” the CSIRO Land and Water researcher said.
“I was always interested in these issues but it wasn’t until I had been with CSIRO for about 10 years that I began thinking about my own background in relation to projects in India.”
In 2011 Anu, who speaks Hindi, spent two weeks in Lucknow at the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR).
The relationships she formed with researchers in this lab continues today, benefiting joint projects between the two countries as well as Anu’s work on-the-ground with communities in India.
Although some remote areas of India are considered unsafe for Australian researchers to travel through, Anu’s Indian heritage, local contacts and language skills have enabled her to conduct important work and reach out to women in isolated communities.
Female farmers and workers based in rural areas are frequently exposed to dangerous pesticides directly when working as pesticide applicators, or indirectly during harvesting, planting and soil preparation. These women can also come into contact with pesticides through washing pesticide-soaked clothes and disposing of empty pesticide containers.
Workshops with rural Indian women
In September last year, Anu organised a one-day workshop in India for rural women on ways to protect themselves from pesticides and improve waterway health.
About 250 women attended the rural workshop, held in a village about 60 kilometres from Delhi.
The workshop was part of the Safe Water project conducted through the Indo-OZ network and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The project also saw Anu travel to India with a team of CSIRO researchers to run workshops for Indian scientists, conduct a field trip for school children in Lucknow and educate women in aquaculture.
“I wanted to do something for rural women. We had worked with Indian women in the aquaculture industry but not everyday women in the farming/village sector,” Anu said.
“It is the women in these communities who are in charge of education. They prepare the children for almost everything in life and share information with the rest of the family. It was important to empower these women to help them manage the health and safety of their entire families.”
Anu saw rashes on the women’s bodies from what she believed was pesticide exposure, likely caused from nearby sugarcane crops. She was also told about a woman who had been found unconscious after working all day in a field where pesticides had been used. Many of the female agricultural workers were unaware of all of the adverse effects of pesticide use.
Anu handed out more than 250 safety masks to the women, which were well received. She spoke of the importance of wearing long sleeves and pants when working in fields and also changing this clothing before entering their homes. Agricultural extension workers for the local farmers need additional resources to initiate activities specifically focused on women and pesticide use.
Besides direct pesticide exposure, the buildup of these impurities in waterways can affect fish and food crops such as rice. People can become very sick from drinking water and eating food from these polluted rivers.
Ninety seven million people in India do not have easy access to clean and safe water and only 31 per cent of rural households have access to tap water.
However concerns regarding safe water for drinking, farming and recreation is not just an issue for those living in remote parts of India.
Future research between India and Australia
Anu is currently leading an Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF) project based on the effect of sewage effluent discharges into rivers in both the countries.
The project focuses on the micropollutants that have been found in some waterways. These include endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) found in plastics and cleaning products as well as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs).
While the number of published studies on EDCs and PPCPs in effluent-receiving environments has grown rapidly over the last decade, particularly in North America and Europe, the Indian evidence-based research is scarce in comparison.
“With an absence of knowledge in this area it is difficult to confirm or refute India’s and even Australia’s position on this global issue,” Anu said.
“Work in the UK, America and Europe suggests that wild fish exposed to low concentrations of EDCs and PPCPs exhibit significant behavioural and morphological abnormalities that may result in a population decrease but currently this hasn’t been found in Australia where sewerage effluent is treated before being discharged into the rivers.”
According to a 2012 World Health Organisation report, effects shown in wildlife or experimental animals may also occur in humans if they are exposed to EDCs at a critical stage in their life and at concentrations leading to alterations of endocrine regulation. Of special concern are effects on early development of both humans and wildlife. The report claims EDCs have been suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in males and females; increased incidence of breast cancer, neurodevelopmental delays in children, as well as changes in immune function.
Australia and India have policies and guidelines to control nutrient, organic matter, and sediment loads into the rivers. However, the release of micropollutants such as EDCs and PPCPs through sewerage treatment plants is not yet regulated in Australia or India.
Micropollutants such as EDCs and PPCPs have been detected at very low concentrations in the Sewerage Treatment Plant (STP) effluent discharges into rivers in some parts of Australia, but are not measured in Indian rivers where concentrations are likely to be higher due to partially treated or untreated effluent discharges.
“Impacts of STP effluent discharges are often exacerbated by drought conditions, with low flows reducing the dilution of discharges,” Anu said.
In other cases, the flow from treated STP discharges can be an important contribution to waterway health, if they are of the right environmental quality and managed well.
Whether it is helping women in India to protect themselves and their families from pesticides or improving the quality of water in Australian rivers, Anu believes her cultural background has benefitted her work in both countries.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” she said of working in India and Australia.