Twenty-two children are dead so far in the village of Dharmasati Gandaman, in India’s Bihar state. The cause is not some communicable disease or strange virus, but their school lunch. According to the BBC, the children all ate from the school’s free mid-day meal. Forty-seven fell ill and 28 had been taken to area hospitals.
The free-lunch program is designed to both combat hunger and increase school attendance in the poverty-stricken village. It’s referred to as the Mid-Day Meal and was started in 1925. But, critics say, it’s plagued by poor hygiene.
Following the deaths, protests broke out. Parents joined with protestors and at least four police vehicles were set on fire.
“The doctors who have attended are of the tentative opinion that the smell coming out of the bodies of the children suggests that the food contained organo-phosphorus, which is a poisonous substance,” said PK Shahi, the state education minister in a statement. “Now the investigators have to find out whether the organo-phosphorus was accidental or there was some kind of deliberate mischief.”
Organophosphorus is a type of insecticide. According to MedIndia, they are also used in chemical warfare and commonly associated with suicide in the area. Versions, like sarin, have been developed into nerve gases and are used in chemical attacks.
Interestingly, nearly all people are exposed to organophosphorus (OP) pesticides in their daily diet. Although one study published in Environmental Health Perspectives indicated organic produce could reduce exposure, it is one of those toxins that the EPA has set “acceptable limits” on. Obviously, the schoolchildren were delivered a far higher dosage than what would be deemed “acceptable” in a normal diet.
A senior education official surmises the contamination may have come from vegetables or rice in the lunch. A doctor treating some of the children says it could have been vegetable oil. In other words, no one quite knows.
Bihar is one of the poorest and simultaneously most-populated states in the country. The Mid-Day Meal program is the largest of its kind, serving about 120 million children.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first case of illness or food-poisoning to come from the program.
“The food is not being checked before it is being served,” said Shahi. “The scale at which the operation is carried out, serving food to 20 million children every day and that too in the remotest village schools, checking food before it is served—that itself is a challenge.