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India’s Pharmacuetical Industry: Warning! Side Effects May Be Severe

The United States has become the No. 1 market for India’s pharmaceutical exports, with purchases reaching $250 million in 2003. But by the time those medicines are swallowed in Chicago or Shreveport, their side effects are already felt by villagers downstream or downwind from the drug factories.

India’s pharmaceutical industry is heavily concentrated in a few small areas, one of the most prominent — and notorious — being near the town of Patancheru in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Over the past two decades, a growing chain of industrial estates has turned this 20-mile stretch of countryside into an ecological sacrifice zone.

The estates, dominant plants make bulk drugs, technically known as “active pharmaceutical ingredients” — raw materials for making pills, capsules, etc. Bulk-drug market competition is fierce, and corner-cutting on waste treatment is rampant.

Given the human and ecological costs of India’s drug industry, I propose that our Food and Drug Administration add additional warnings to labels on imported drugs. For example:

“Side effects, including drowsiness, skin rashes, gastrointestinal distress, neurological disorders, cardiovascular problems and/or cancer, may be encountered by those living near the site of manufacture of this drug.”

A 2004 survey by Greenpeace India compared villages and found high rates of these and other illnesses where water is shared with drug plants. Two major universities have launched studies of health problems in the area.

The mere smell of the villages, water is enough to make you gag. Pollutant concentrations in area streams and lakes range from 12 to 100 times as high as those in an unpolluted lake just outside the contaminated zone, according to the 2004 report of a committee appointed by the state’s High Court.

In accordance with court orders, drug companies are paying to have safe water piped into affected villages for drinking and cooking. But the polluted water is still used for other purposes in the home and on the farm.

That brings us to another labeling suggestion: “Warning: This product may disrupt food production in certain areas.”

Thousands of acres of formerly good farmland around Patancheru lie uncultivated during the dry season because groundwater has become unfit for irrigation. The court committee sampled 48 wells in the area and found 81 percent polluted beyond an international standard for irrigation water.

How about this warning?: “Consumption of this antacid may induce headache, coughing and/or nausea downwind from where it was produced.”

Despite repeated crackdowns by government authorities, some factories continue to pollute the Patancheru area’s air with sulfurous mercaptan compounds that smell like rotten fish — ironically, during the production of stomach antacids.

Finally: “Some patients will experience sharp pangs of remorse when they learn more about the conditions under which this medication was produced.”

The court committee visited 40 “pollution potential” companies in the industrial estates. Of those, 30 were producing drugs or drug ingredients, and only five were complying fully with Patancheru’s lenient pollution laws.

For effluent at new U.S. drug plants, the Environmental Protection Agency sets strict limits on at least 34 chemical compounds, from acetone to xylene. But in the Patancheru area, where normally only the total quantity of pollutants is tracked, there’s almost no information about specific toxic compounds. That’s serious, because some of the drug industry’s solvents, byproducts and ingredients can harm people even at low concentrations.

When it comes to the cost of patented prescription drugs in the United States, the sky’s the limit. But in the global bulk drug market, low cost is the name of the game, and India’s people and landscape are the losers.

Meanwhile, are you wondering if the U.S. medical establishment is aware of the global pharmaceutical trade’s side effects? Ask your doctor.

STAN COX, senior research scientist at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan., lived in India for seven years and recently spent three months there. He wrote this for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle. He can be reached at: t.stan@cox.net