Cooking Oil Suspected in India School Lunch Poisoning That Killed 23

The police investigation into the free school lunches that killed 23 children in India last week found that the lunches contained very high levels of pesticide of a type that isn’t widely available, Reuters reports. The children, attending school in country’s Bihar state, started vomiting and complaining of stomach cramps shortly after consuming a meal of rice and potato curry at lunch last Tuesday.

Chemical analysis traced the contamination to cooking oil used to prepare the food. Ravindra Kumar, senior police official said that the oil contained an organophosphate monocrotophos at concentrations five times those typically used in the commercial version of the pesticide. Abhijit Sinha explained that the compound was extremely toxic and therefore has to be diluted quite a bit before used to spray crops.

“Typically it has to be diluted five times. So one litre of monocrotophos is mixed with five litres of water.”

Sinha said the concentrated form was not widely available and the pesticide was normally sold commercially in the diluted state.

Police said on Friday they suspected the cooking oil used in the meal was kept in a container previously used to store the pesticide. They are still looking for the headmistress of the school, who fled after the deaths.

The meal was served as part of the free lunch program which aims to deliver a hot, nutritious meals to India’s low-income students in the middle of the school day. It is believed that providing lunches free of charge would do much to reduce rates of malnutrition and school absenteeism. More than 120 million children around the country receive such meals, but over the program’s lifetime it has drawn scrutiny over its record of food safety.

The World Health Organisation describes monocrotophos as highly hazardous and that handling and application of it should be entrusted only to competently supervised and well-trained applicators.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says all waste and contaminated material associated with the chemical should be considered hazardous waste and destroyed in a special high-temperature chemical incinerator facility.

The person in charge of administering the program at the school has been suspended and the missing principal is facing criminal charges. After the news of the poisoning and the deaths spread, local villages rioted, overturning police cars and closing shops.

Initially, officials suspected faulty preparation techniques caused the poisoning, specifically a failure to clean the food before it was prepared. However, that hypothesis has now been dismissed.