ISIS Report 18/04/06
More Illnesses Linked to Bt Crops
Further evidence has emerged on the link between common transgenic proteins
and serious allergic reactions while regulators turn a deaf ear and approve
yet more planting. Dr. Mae-Wan
A fully referenced version
of this articles is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here
The same transgenic proteins implicated in two different GM crops
We recently reported illnesses and deaths among villagers of south Mindanao
in the Philippines that are suspected of being linked to the genetically modified
‘Bt’ maize with an insecticidal protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis  (“GM ban long overdue, five deaths and dozens ill in
the Philippines”, SiS
Since then, similar
illnesses are reported to have occurred in Madhya Pradesh, central India,
as a result of exposure to ‘Bt’ cotton genetically modified with the same
or similar insecticidal protein(s).
India began commercial
planting of Bt cotton in 2002/03 with 38 038 ha (0.78 percent of hybrid area),
increasing to 6.4 percent and 11.65 percent respectively in 2003/4 and 2004/5.
Currently, nearly 9 million ha of cotton is grown in India, 2.8 million hybrid
Madhya Pradesh is
India’s fifth largest cotton producing state, with Malwa and Nimad the main
cotton growing regions. The Bt cotton varieties planted were developed by
Monsanto, and carry the insecticidal Cry1Ac protein (Bollgard) or both Cry1Ac
and Cry1Ab proteins (Bollgard II), according to an article on the industry’s
Farmers from the
Nimad region in Western Madhya Pradesh began complaining of health hazards
after Bt cotton was planted. This prompted a three-member team representing
a coalition of non-government organisations to carry out a preliminary survey
in six villages in Nimad region between October and December 2005.
The team interviewed 23
of the farm and factory workers who fell ill after having handled Bt cotton.
All had itching skin, 20 had eruptions on the body, and 13 had swollen faces.
In some cases, the itching was so bad that they had to discontinue work, or
take anti-allergy medicine in order to be able to work.
The survey resulted
in a report which concluded : “All the evidence gathered during the investigation
shows that Bt has been causing skin, upper respiratory tract and eye allergy
among persons exposed to cotton... The allergy is not restricted to farm labourers
involved in picking cotton but has affected labourers involved in loading
and unloading Bt from villages to market, those involved in its weighing,
labourers working in ginning factories, people who carried out other operations
in the field of Bt cotton, or farmers who stored cotton in their homes etc.”
The team consisted
of Dr. Ashish Gupta of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People’s Health Movement, India);
Ashish Mandloi, a graduate of Barwani College working with Narmada Bachao
Anolan (Save Narmada River Movement) and associate of the National Alliance
of Peoples’ Movements; and Amulya Nidhi, a health activist working in Maharastra
and Madhya Pradesh specializing in Urban and Rural community Development,
and associated with Shilpi Trust and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.
The survey covered
6 villages in the Barwani and Dhar districts of Nimad region in Madhya Pradesh,
interviewing various groups of people involved in handling cotton - women
picking cotton, labourers loading-unloading cotton, ginning factory workers
- as well as a local doctor and an agricultural scientist.
Allergy symptoms in farm workers and other workers handling Bt cotton
The team found allergy symptoms
in people in direct contact with Bt cotton on their hands, feet, face, in
their eyes and nose, with some becoming “very severely ill.”
The skin was the
most common site of allergy: itching, redness, eruptions and swelling. Typically,
after the first 4-5 hours of exposure, most people complained of itching on
the face and the hand. Soon, the itching increased and by the time they finish
the day’s work, they had redness on the hands and face and swelling of the
face. After continued exposure of one to two days, small white eruptions would
appear, most often on the face. The symptoms began to subside after varying
periods from four to five days up to five to six months, but black discolouration
would show on the skin.
The people affected
did not have previous history of allergies even though they were involved
in picking cotton earlier.
Those who had more
severe symptoms of the skin tend also to have associated allergies of eyes
and respiratory tract. Eye irritation, involving itching, redness, swelling
and watery eyes affected 11 of the 23 individuals; 9 had upper respiratory
symptoms of watering from the nose and excessive sneezing. Three had mild
symptoms, while 10 each had severe and moderate symptoms respectively.
One woman had to
be removed from the fields and taken to Barwani District Hospital where she
remained for 9 days.
Cotton fibre appeared
to be causing the allergy. (In the case of the Bt maize in the Philippines,
the pollen was suspected to be the main culprit.) The owner of the ginning
factory Mr. Sunil Patidar said that symptoms like itching, redness of eyes,
watering of eyes and cough were found in labourers in his factory. Most of
the labourers were having problems, and the year before, it was even more
prevalent. He said that was why labourers were not ready to unload the cotton-loaded
truck from Maharastra.
The labourers working
in different ginning factories said itching of the whole body was very common,
and only when they took Tab. Avil (a common anti-allergy medicine) every day
were they able to work.
Kalibai of Kothra
said she has been working for 20 years picking cotton and never had any symptoms
until 2004, when she suffered very bad allergy from picking Bt cotton.
Dr. Ramesh Jar of
Saigaon, Ayurvedic doctor, has been practicing in Aawli, Tal Thikri in District
Barwani. He said he has already received around 150 cases of allergy from
two villages of Aawli and Saigaon in 2005. In 2004, he had around 100 cases.
He is prescribing Dexona injection and Levocetrigen for skin and anti allergic
drops for eyes.
Dr. Debashish Baner,
an agricultural scientist, thinks that Bt cotton produces Bt toxin in all
tissues including cotton fibres.
The team is demanding
a government enquiry; but that seems to have fallen on deaf ears so far.
Bt bacteria and spores were previously linked to allergic reactions
Bt toxins come from the
soil bacterium Bacilllus thuringiensis
(Bt), common strains of which produce a large family of insecticide Cry proteins
each targeting a different range of insect pests. Strains of Bt have been
used as sprays to control insect pests in the United States for many years
before transgenic Bt crops were created.
A study published
in 1999 funded by the US Environment Protection Agency found that exposure
to the Bt sprays “may lead to allergic skin sensitisation and induction of
IgE and IgG antibodies or both” .
Farm workers who
picked vegetables that required Bt spraying were evaluated before and after
exposure to Bt spray, and one and four months afterwards. Two groups of low,
and medium exposure workers not directly exposed to Bt spray, but working
at different distances from the sprayed fields were also assessed. Investigations
included questionnaires, nasal/mouth lavages, assessment of ventilatory function,
and skin tests. To authenticate exposure to the organism present in the commercial
preparation, bacteria isolated from lavage specimens were tested for Bt genes
by DNA-DNA hybridisation. Blood immunoglobulin G and IgE responses to spore
and vegetative Bt extracts were assayed.
tests to several spore extracts were seen chiefly in exposed workers. In particular,
there was a significant increase in the number of positive skin tests to spore
extracts one and four months after exposure to Bt spray. The number of positive
skin test responses was also significantly greater in high- than in low- or
medium-exposure group of workers. The majority of nasal lavage cultures from
exposed workers was positive for the commercial Bt organism as demonstrated
by specific molecular genetic probes. Specific IgE antibodies were present
in more workers from the high-exposure group than from low- and medium-exposure
groups. Specific IgG antibodies also occurred more frequently in the high-
than in the low-exposure group.
In a previous public
health survey of a large number of individuals exposed to a massive Bt pesticide
spraying programme , some of the symptoms recorded include rash and deep
swelling. One worker developed inflammation of the skin, itching, swelling
and reddening of the skin with redness of the eyes. Bt was cultured from the
In 1992, Bt was used
in an Asian gypsy moth control programme, and was found to be associated with
classical allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal mucosa) symptoms, exacerbations
of asthma, and skin reactions among exposed individuals reporting possible
health effects after the spraying operations . Similar findings
occurred during another Bt spraying in the spring of 1994 .
Allergens trigger 75 percent of asthma cases
Allergenicity is of particular
concern because approximately 75 percent of asthma cases are triggered by
allergens  and illnesses and deaths due to asthma have rocketed in recent
years. Asthma deaths tripled in the United States from 1 674 in 1977
to 5 438 in 1998. The costs of asthma doubled from $6.2 billion in 1990 to
$12.7 billion in 2000 .
Bt crops were first
introduced in the United States in 1996, and have expanded substantially in
acreage since, with little or no further research on the toxicity or allergenicity
of the Cry proteins released in greater and greater abundance into the environment.
Limited studies carried out by a research team in Cuba showed that Cry1Ac
is a powerful immunogen, and when fed to mice, induced antibody responses
similar to those obtained with the cholera toxin. Furthermore, Cry1Ac actively
binds to the inner surface of the mouse small intestine, especially to the
‘brush border’ membranes on the cells lining the small intestine .
It has also been
shown that all the Cry proteins in Bt crops have amino acid sequence similarities
to known allergens [12-14], and are hence potential allergens.
Regulators are guilty of gross negligence
Meanwhile, the biotech industry
has been aggressively promoting GM crops worldwide, especially those with
Bt biopesticide and in developing countries like India and the Philippines.
The latest survey carried out by the industry-funded group ISAAA claims that
the global area given over to GM crops has increased from 81 million ha in
2004 to 90 million ha in 2005 . Bt crops now comprise 29 percent of the
total (18 percent Bt, and 11 percent stacked Bt and herbicide tolerance).
to approve Bt crops, despite the fact that successive surveys carried out
both by scientists and by non-government organisations have demonstrated that
Bt crops have failed to match the performance of local varieties  and
farmers who bought into the aggressive propaganda have ended up in debt, and
worse, suicide [17-18], so much so that an “agrarian crisis” was declared
The latest evidence
of serious health impacts linked to Bt crops comes in corroboration of previous
findings dating back to the 1980s that should have halted the development
and approval of Bt crops then.
By now, it is simply
gross negligence not to impose a ban on further releases of Bt crops until
they have been proven safe by a thoroughly independent enquiry.