Skip to main content

School meals tainted with poison kill 22 children in Indian village

By Aloke Devichand and Tim Hume, CNN
July 19, 2013 -- Updated 0252 GMT (1052 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At least 22 dead, one critical after eating school meals containing a poison, official says
  • The poison is a sarin-related nerve gas used in agriculture
  • The children were from Dharamsati village in Bihar state, northeastern India
  • The deaths have triggered violent protests and calls for a general strike

(CNN) -- At least 22 schoolchildren died in northeastern India after eating free school lunches that contained a poison, a state official said.

More than 25 others were hospitalized in Bihar state, said Bihar Education Minister P.K. Shahi, after ingesting an insecticide that was in the food. One remains critical, the hospital said.

The poison was organophosphorus, a chemical that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is commonly used in agriculture.

It is a nerve agent related to sarin gas, which is used in chemical warfare, the U.S. Health Department says.

A woman rests with her child at a ward housing the poisoned schoolchildren at the Patna Medical College and Hospital, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, Wednesday, July 17. At least 22 schoolchildren died in northeastern India after eating free school lunches that contained an insecticide commonly used in agriculture. Officials are investigating whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate. A woman rests with her child at a ward housing the poisoned schoolchildren at the Patna Medical College and Hospital, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, Wednesday, July 17. At least 22 schoolchildren died in northeastern India after eating free school lunches that contained an insecticide commonly used in agriculture. Officials are investigating whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate.
Deadly school lunch in India
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Deadly school lunch in India Deadly school lunch in India
Indian cook: Something wrong with oil
20 children die after eating school lunch

Exposure to a high dose can cause an irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, paralysis and seizures.

Shahi told CNN the school's cook had questioned the quality of the oil she was being asked to use but was overruled by the head teacher.

He said: "The information which has come to me indeed suggests that the headmistress was told by the cook that medium of cooking was not proper, and she suspected the quality of the oil. But the headmistress rebuked her, and chastised the children, and forced them to continue the meal."

CNN has not been able to contact the headmistress.

A program providing one free hot meal a day to school children has proved incredibly popular as part of India's wider effort to tackle malnutrition. Children aged 6 months to 14 years get take-home rations or are provided with hot cooked food.

The wider $22 billion-a-year welfare scheme aims to sell subsidized wheat and rice to 67% of its 1.2 billion people.

According to the Indian government's figures, nearly half of India's children suffer from malnutrition of some sort.

Shahi said: "Twenty million children are being served hot meals in about 73,000 elementary schools. We have been endeavoring to improve the quality ... However, the challenge is still there because the magnitude of this program is so huge that there are a number of challenges."

He added: "It is really very unfortunate. Even though I would unhesitatingly admit that there are some quality issues before us, but this is the first incident which has happened in the state. In the past we have received complaints regarding quality, but the incident of this nature has happened for the first time. It has really shocked us -- shocked the entire state."

Speaking on CNN's sister network CNN-IBN, district magistrate Abhijit Sinha said an inquiry into the deaths had been launched.

CNN-IBN reported that the children were between the ages of 5 and 12 and from Dahrmasati Gandawan, a village in Saran district, Bihar state. It said their deaths Tuesday triggered violent protests Wednesday in Chhapra, the headquarters of Saran district, and a call from politicians for a general strike.

Madhusudan Paswan, Saran's district education officer, told CNN that 31 of the affected children were sent from the local Sadar Hospital to Patna Medical College Hospital in the state capital Tuesday night.

CNN-IBN quoted Shahi as saying the deaths were a clear result of poisoning, and an investigation would determine whether the contamination was accidental or deliberate.

Since a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2001, all government schools in India have been required to provide free meals to students younger than 13.

In 2012: Poisoning sends 38 Mexican kindergarteners to hospital

CNN's Sumnima Udas contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Tethered to an IV drip, 71-year-old Shin Young Ja lies under a thin fleece blanket, nursing a broken back and wracked with survivor's guilt.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
Family members of the missing passengers are pinning slim hopes on floundering air pockets.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
An Iranian mother slaps and then forgives her 17-year old son's murderer in dramatic scenes at the gallows.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
An "extraordinary" video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
Explore each side's case, reconstructed from Pistorius' court affidavit and the prosecution's case during last year's bail hearing.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
The Hadza are one of the last communities of hunter-gatherers in the world -- but losing their land.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 0122 GMT (0922 HKT)
In choosing to change a traditional practice, Francis is being as radical as Jesus was in his own time.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
Too weak. Can't handle pressure. Unattractive to sponsors. Susie Wolff has heard it all.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
It's like finding a needle in a universe-wide haystack. Researchers have located a planet roughly the size of Earth that could be habitable.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
Dubai, long champion of all things biggest, longest and most expensive, will soon have some competition from a neighboring country.
ADVERTISEMENT