The fatal poisoning of over 20 children has caused panic among parents and students fearful of more deaths from school meals. Police have gathered clues in the case, but must find the headmistress for a full answer.
Investigators in the eastern Indian state of Bihar searched for the cause of poisonous school meals on Thursday, which have claimed the lives of 22 school children between the ages of four and 12. Preliminary results showed traces of pesticides in the food, they said. However, it was not immediately clear whether the food or the cooking oil had contained the toxic substance.
A physician treating children at Patna Medical College Hospital said he and his team had detected organophosphorus compounds, which are commonly used as pesticides, early in their diagnosis.
"The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odor of organophosphorus," Dr. Vinod Mishra told the news agency Reuters.
"It seemed as though it was coming out of their pores. That's when we prepared the diagnosis for organophosphorus poisoning and it worked. The diagnosis has shown results," Dr. Mishra said.
The education minister of Bihar state, P.K. Shahi, also confirmed these findings, adding that farmers often used organophosphorus on rice and wheat crops.
Investigators are also conducting tests on the oil used in the meal. Both the education minister and villagers told reporters that the cooks had complained of the foul smelling oil to the school's headmistress. She reportedly had then ordered the staff to proceed with meal preparations despite concerns.
The headmistress of the school in question has not been seen since the first children died on Tuesday. Authorities believe she fled from the Saran district, where the village school is located.
Plates left untouched
Staff members at local schools were tasked with tasting the free lunches prepared on school premises before serving them to pupils, according to local media reports.
There were no signs of violent protests on Thursday. Instead, parents and students stood defiant against consuming food prepared at the school, according to the director of the school meal program for Bihar state.
"Parents have warned their children to not even touch the meal served in the school," the director, who uses only the name Lakshmanan, told the news agency AFP.
"Some of the students dumped the lunch in school dustbins and we are trying to convince everyone that the tragedy will not be repeated," Lakshmanan said.
India has the world's largest school lunch program, serving 120 million students. Officials began the program as an incentive for regular school attendance and as a tool to fight malnourishment. Bihar is one of India's most impoverished states.
The sudden deaths on Tuesday had sparked violent rioting into late Wednesday. Outraged residents set fire to several vehicles, threw stones and denounced the state government for the lack of oversight.
kms/pfd (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)