Punjab in northern India, held up as a shining example of green revolution, is turning into a veritable nightmare for healthcare authorities.
A major two-year study by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, found varying degrees of DNA mutation in 65% of the blood samples taken from the residents of villages affected by industrial waste and pesticide poisoning.
It also detected genetic damage in some cases, reports the Times of India.
In all 25 villages were covered by the study. The drinking water in these areas has turned toxic due to a high concentration of heavy metals such as mercury, copper, cadmium, chromium and lead, it said.
There is also evidence of these metals entering the food chain. Besides pesticides have been detected in vegetables, human milk and blood samples.
In Mahal, one such village, chemicals have seeped into the village's groundwater from the polluted drain water causing a variety of ailments.
Housewives there talk about a sharp rise in the number of miscarriages, and old men insist their hands and fingers are turning numb.
In the government elementary school in Mahal, located near five open drains, an unusually high number of children complain of rashes and boils.
There could be worse in store. The principal investigator, Dr J S Thakur, outlines the possible scenario caused by genotoxicity, a condition in which lethal chemicals gather in the body, leading to DNA damage.
In future, more children will be born with congenital malformations — cleft lip, half or no skull, growth retardation.
Pregnant women will have more sudden, "spontaneous" abortions. Instances of bone deformities, along with gastrointestinal, skin, dental and eye problems will rise.
And so will cases of cancer. "There is clear evidence that irrigation of fields with highly contaminated drain water and exposure to pesticides is leading to neuro, reproductive and genotoxicity. The genetic damage may not be visible right now. But it will manifest itself in future," says Dr Thakur.
It wasn't always like this. Old timers in Mahal recall that before Partition, the drain was a cheery monsoon rivulet full of birds and fishes, where village boys often went for a swim. That's long changed. A recent study by the Zoology department of Amritsar's Guru Nanak Dev University showed that the drain was now completely devoid of aquatic life.
People in parts of rural West Bengal have been drinking arsenic-laced ground water for decades and suffering the consequences. Arsenic can cause cancer. But the ground water in these parts of rural Punjab has many more deadly chemicals, it is reported.