The Sciences

Scientists Develop Gel That Could Protect Farmers From Toxic Pesticides

The gel can be applied on the skin and can break down toxic chemicals in pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, including the most hazardous and widely used organophosphorous compounds.

New Delhi: Indian farmers usually do not wear any protective gear while spraying chemicals in fields. This exposes them to harmful toxics contained in pesticides, causing severe health impacts and even death in extreme cases. Indian scientists have now developed a protective gel to address this problem.

The gel can be applied on the skin and can break down toxic chemicals in pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, including the most hazardous and widely used organophosphorous compounds. The gel deactivates these chemicals, preventing them from going deep into the skin and organs like the brain and lungs. It has been found to be effective in tests done in rats and researchers hope to soon test it in humans.

Exposure to chemicals contained in pesticides interferes with an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE), which is present in the nervous system and is critical for neuromuscular functions. When its functioning is disrupted by chemical pesticides entering the body through the skin, it can cause neurotoxicity, cognitive dysfunction and even death. When the gel was applied on rats that were then exposed to a lethal dose of a pesticide called methyl parathion, it did not lead to any change in their AChE levels, showing it could prevent penetration of the pesticide into the skin.

A farmer in Telangana spraying pesticide in a field. Credit: InStem

A farmer in Telangana spraying pesticide in a field. Credit: InStem

The gel, named poly-Oxime, has been prepared by researchers at the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (InStem), Bengaluru, from a nucleophilic polymer. In lab studies, rats treated with poly-Oxime survived pesticide treatment, whereas rats with no gel or sham gel showed symptoms of poisoning or died. The results of the study were published in the journal Science Advances on October 18.

The gel does not act like a physical barrier but like a catalyst to deactivate organophosphate. An oxime could hydrolyse multiple organophosphate molecules, one after another. And it can do so at temperatures ranging from 20º to 40º C, and even after long exposure to ultraviolet light. “Our data suggests that a thin layer of poly-Oxime gel can hydrolyse organophosphates on the skin,” the study notes. “Therefore, it can prevent AChE inhibition quantitatively in blood and in all internal organs such as brain, lung, liver and heart.” It has also been found that the catalytic gel can work against a range of commonly used commercial pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.

Also read: Indian Researchers Unravel How a Common Insecticide Can Cause Diabetes

“At present, we are conducting extensive safety studies in animals which will be completed in four months. Subsequently we plan a pilot study in humans to demonstrate efficacy of the gel,” Praveen Kumar Vemula, a senior member of the research team, told India Science Wire.

As the next logical step, the research group plans to develop an active mask to deactivate pesticides since the gel now developed does not provide any protection from inhalation of pesticide vapours, according to Vemula.

In order to understand the problem of toxicity caused by pesticides, researchers interacted with several farmers and their families. While many of them said they experienced pain right after spraying pesticides, they had no access to protective equipment or substances. Farmers, according to the researchers, showed a willingness to adopt any low-cost topical method that could prevent pesticide exposure.

Dinesh C. Sharma writes at India Science Wire and tweets @dineshcsharma.