June 9, 2008 All Things Considered, National
Krulwich on Science
India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue
Cows in India's cities have been suffering from a strange malady.
Back in 2000, a senior police official in Lucknow, India, announced that cows
in his city were mysteriously dying of some kind of new wasting disease. No one
could explain why, but normally healthy cows were being released, as usual,
into the city's streets to graze on garbage. Yet they were getting skinnier and
weaker, and then dying of what appeared to be starvation.
They were eating and yet they were starving, said the police official. He
A Look Inside
Thin plastic garbage bags are a recent innovation in India, where trash
collection is still haphazard. Cows were apparently eating fruit and vegetable
garbage tucked into plastic.
The bags, state authorities said, were gathering in the cows' stomachs — cows
have four — to the point that food could no longer be absorbed and digested. In
some of the sample cows, there were pounds of plastic engorged in their
Thicker plastic bags weigh more and are more valuable to ragpickers — a caste
of people in India who collect garbage.
A law was passed. But the plastics industry ignored the law and continued to
make thin bags.
Around the country, stories were told of government officials and police
officers trying to enforce the thicker bag rule, by going through stores with
an instrument that weighed the thickness of plastic bags in microns. The ruling
deemed that any bag 20 microns or less was banned. But how could shopkeepers
distinguish a 20-micron bag from a 21-micron bag?
In the end, plastic makers continue to make thin bags, shopkeepers continue to
use them, and cows continue to die from eating them.
And so, like everywhere else in the world, you discover that what people say is
one thing — but what they do is often something different.
Audio story written by Robert Krulwich, produced by Jessica Goldstein.
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