Lab notes: Bangladesh ‘litchi deaths’ now linked to excessive pesticide on fruit

Lab notes: Bangladesh ‘litchi deaths’ now linked to excessive pesticide on fruit

A medical research into the deaths of 13 children in Bangladesh in 2012 revealed that they were probably caused by insecticides, not lychee seeds.

The children, from a rural community in Dinajpur district, northern Bangladesh, all had an acute encephalitis syndrome or AES – a condition associated with fatal brain inflammation.

Fourteen children became ill between May 31 and June 30, 2012 and only one survived. All deaths occurred within 20 hours of onset of symptoms and have been associated with exposure to lychee fruits, which is grown in South Asia.

Similar deaths were recorded in Muzaffarpur, a district of Bihar, India. Analysis of these cases indicate that toxic compounds in lychee fruits trigger low blood sugar levels of malnourished children who skipped the dinner that leads to death.

However, a team of researchers from the International Center for Research on Diarrheal Diseases and Disease Control and the Institute for Epidemiology Research in Bangladesh and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the Center for Disease Prevention and Control Global health in the United States referred to the death of Bangladesh lychee and found that AES was probably triggered by excessive and inappropriate application of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals in local fruit orchards.

The researchers pointed out that lychee seeds were not consumed and if the seeds were the cause, there would have been no scattered cases across the country and not just in a small area.

Scientists discovered that the epidemic in 2012 occurred at the time of harvest and farmers applied endosulfan in orchards, a highly toxic insecticide that has been banned in more than 80 countries. By 2016, Bangladesh was one of many countries, including India and the United States, which still allows restricted use of endosulfan.

Local residents told investigators that it was common for children to play in the orchards and eat unwashed fall fruit, using their teeth to peel thick skin. In addition, several of the victims had family members working in the orchards and this may be an increase in insecticide exposure to residues in used household linen.

The research team collected physical evidence gardens, which include containers of insecticides and other released chemicals. Residents were interviewed and found that many chemicals were applied to the fruit and in quantities much larger than those normally used by other lychee producers.

The study also found evidence that lychee producers apply an insecticide that had been approved for use in cotton, not food crops. The results were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Scientists plan to conduct follow-up studies for more liver biopsies in biological evidence and brain victims.