Our environmental mess and diabetes

If Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, the Union Health Minister is to be believed, chronic diseases are rising in India as never before. He is the co-author of a paper in The Lancet, written along with the present head of the Public Health Foundation of India, Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, and published not long ago, making that very claim. Leading the pack of chronic diseases is of course the notorious duo, hypertension and diabetes with the hopelessness of cancer coming close behind. Together, the top two lead to a host of health conditions that kill a staggering number of Indians annually and leave many others, the middle class included, in penury.

During a recent interaction with journalists at The Hindu, Dr. Ramadoss identified issues which in his view, are responsible for a good part of the chronic diseases problem. Among those, the important ones are our lifestyle choices, our choice of high calorie food, and a sedentary lifestyle, besides of course, the addictive habits of smoking and alcohol consumption.

We don’t need peer-reviewed articles to understand that the sociological shift to westernised habits, the rise of the personal automobile, the magnetic hold of television, video and other sedentary entertainment, and the plentiful availability of junk food, door-delivered, are all responsible for the path to health ruin that we Indians have chosen. Add to this the atrophy of walking spaces in our urban centres, for which we are not responsible, our leaders are.

During my interaction with Dr. Ajay Royyuru at the IBM laboratories in New York State recently, I learned about the extraordinarily high incidence of diabetes mellitus among US-based Indians. Apparently, there is a genetic predisposition to developing diabetes, which other factors are “triggering” under some circumstances.

But there is another key factor missing in the current discussions. The Lancet points out  in its latest edition that we may be missing a key link, by confining ourselves to well-known factors, and ignoring the role of the environment. (You may have to register on the Lancet website to view the report).

“An increasing number of reports suggest that chronic dietary exposure to, and accumulation of, low concentrations of environmental pollutants within the body might also be associated with diabetogenesis. Ignoring the potential effects of xenobiotics therefore risks ignoring a potentially crucial component in the study of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and the metabolic syndrome,” says the article in The Lancet.

Dr. Ramadoss will no doubt have to think hard whether his department and the Government in general have devoted themselves sufficiently to the problem outlined by The Lancet — which is, the high levels of peristent organic pollutants that people ingest when the environment is degraded (as it visibly is in India), leading to the onset of diabetes. As the journal points out, this is not a new area of work, but the role of foreign chemicals (xenobiotics) in the onset of diabetes may be receiving insufficient attention.

This is a scandalous situation because our high-talking, dishonest political class and its lapdog bureaucracy have never given environmental concerns their due place in public discussion. The Bhopal gas tragedy is a continuing case study of their all-consuming greed and total lack of scruple. The Central and State Pollution Control boards serve purely as rent-collecting agents for our corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, as they did in the days of Union Carbide in Bhopal.

It is, to me, a matter of great concern that there is greater pressure on all of us to consume materials at a fast pace, without paying heed either to the quality of these materials or to the impact that they have on the natural environment.

The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, did a national study of inland water bodies a few years ago. Its conclusions are shocking, and have been highlighted by media reports and editorials: almost all our water bodies have an alarming level of persistent organic pollutants. The fish in these lakes and ponds carry the same kind of pollutants in their tissues, and these are consumed by people (don’t take comfort in the fact that mercury levels in Japanese ‘Sushi’ fish sold in New York have recently been found to be high, causing concern).

All of which makes me wonder whether Dr. Ramadoss and other leaders who expound on our poor habits have devoted sufficient attention to cleaning up the national act. Even if we were to be the model citizen, can the Ramadosses of this country protect us from the pollutants and pesticides that we are forced to consume ? Are they not then responsible for our developing diabetes, hypertension and a hundred other maladies, including cancer?

Dear Minister, are you doing what you should really be doing?


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