Importance of pesticides for lethal poisoning in India during 1999 to 2018: a systematic review

Ayanthi Karunarathne, Ashish Bhalla, Aastha Sethi, Uditha Perera, Michael Eddleston*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Poisoning is a major problem in India. However, there is little systematic information on the key poisons responsible for most deaths by geographical area and over time. We aimed to review the literature to identify the poison classes causing the greatest number of deaths in India over the last 20 years.
Methods: We performed a systematic literature review in Medline, Embase and Google Scholar (1999-2018), and Indian online medical journals, to find papers that reported deaths from all forms of poisoning in India, with last search 20 April 2020. We included epidemiological studies, observational studies, randomised trials, interventional studies, and case series published from 1999 to 2018 that showed the number of deaths and autopsy studies indicating the specific poisons or poison classes. Studies providing the case fatality for specific poisons or classes, which enabled calculation of the number of deaths, were also included. We excluded deaths due to animal bites and stings, ethanol or methanol poisoning, and gas inhalation as well as papers reporting a single death (case study of single patient). We grouped the papers into 5-year intervals and identified the two most common poison classes in each paper. We used descriptive statistics to summarise the findings over time based on the causative poison and the location of the study.
Results: We identified 186 papers reporting 16,659 poisoning deaths between 1999 and 2018. The number of publications per 5-year interval showed no clear trend over the period (48, 38, 67, and 36 for consecutive periods). Half of the deaths (n=8,338, 50.0%) were reported during the first five years of the study (1999-2003), the number of deaths declining thereafter (to n=1,714 in 2014-2018). Deaths due to pesticide poisoning (94.5%) were dominant across the study period compared to other classes of poison [hair dye paraphenylenediamine poisoning (2.6%), medicine overdose (1.4%) or plant poisoning (1.0%)]. Among the pesticides, aluminium phosphide was the most important lethal poison during the first ten years before declining markedly; organophosphorus insecticides were important throughout the period, becoming dominant in the last decade as aluminium phosphide cases declined. Unfortunately, few papers identified the specific organophosphorus insecticide responsible for deaths.
Conclusion: Use of the published literature to better understand the epidemiology of lethal poisoning in India has clear limitations, including secular variation in publishing practices and interest in poisoning. Unfortunately, there are no long-term detailed, combination hospital and community studies from India to provide this information. In their absence, our review indicates that pesticides are the most important poison in India, with organophosphorus insecticides replacing aluminium phosphide as the key lethal poison after government regulatory changes in 2001 reduced the latter’s lethality. Plant and hair dye poisoning and medicines overdose caused few deaths. Aluminium phosphide deaths mostly occurred in northern Indian states, whereas deaths from organophosphorus insecticide poisoning occurred throughout India. Paraquat poisoning has become a clinical problem in the last ten years. Lethal pesticide poisoning remains alarmingly common, emphasising the need for additional regulatory interventions to curtail the burden of pesticide poisoning deaths in India. More detailed reporting about the specific pesticide involved in lethal poisoning will be helpful to guide regulatory decisions.
Funding: the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention is funded by an Incubator Grant from the Open Philanthropy Project Fund, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, on the recommendation of GiveWell, USA
Original languageEnglish
JournalBMC Public Health
Early online date22 Jul 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Jul 2021


  • poisoning
  • India
  • Aluminium phosphide
  • Pesticide


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