May 16, 2008
By Aquene Freechild
Environmental Health Fund
Over time, our bodies lose their ability to cope with toxic chemicals, and each exposure has a more severe effect.
I don’t know how anyone survives there.
My first visit to the SIPCOT Chemicals Hub in Cuddalore, India could have appeared deceptively pleasant to outside eyes. It’s a beautiful day and there’s a good breeze as we drive past the welcome sign for SIPCOT. The air in some places seems far cleaner than the air in nearby Chennai. In some spots it smells sweet, in others, like opening a bottle of ibuprofen — an antiseptic, medicinal smell.
That is until my throat gets sore, I feel a bit nauseated and my guide starts retching. My guide, a local community environmental monitor finally recovers with bloodshot eyes. A headache follows and I begin to wonder how anyone manages to work in these facilities. SIPCOT Chemical Hub sandwiches its picturesque fishing villages in between rusting hulks of chemical factories. The court ordered waste channels are overflowing with an eerily pale blue green liquid, cattle graze not far away.
I visited the Cuddalore chemical hub, 2.5 hours south of Chennai on my most recent trip to India this January. I was in India to meet with the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster, in which more than 8,000 people were gassed to death nearly overnight in 1984 by a Union Carbide chemical leak. Water contamination and long term effects of the toxic gas have killed 15,000 more since that December night. Cuddalore is a case study of how growing chemicals manufacture in the Global South for western and local markets is setting the stage for future Bhopals. While major consumer markets from New Delhi to New York rely on chemical manufacturing from impoverished communities in the Global South, toxics come back concentrated in products and food produced in the same impoverished communities.
The SIPCOT Chemicals Hub is currently an 8km stretch of pharmaceutical, explosive, dye and pesticide manufacturers. If it is completed as planned, it will stretch more than 38 kilometers, possibly trapping thousands of people on a strip of land between the Kaveri River and the sea that is less than 1km wide. One of my guides, Center for Environmental Monitoring organizer Shweta Narayan, works to keep this already toxic hotspot from reaching the boiling point and to help protect the local population from further egregious harm.
What might be a one-time chemical exposure for a healthy visitor, is a daily sensitization to highly toxic pollutants for the people living nearby. The villagers fish the polluted waters, and breathe belches of black and yellow smoke that smell like pickled cabbage, rotting carcass, sulfur gas or pesticides depending on the factory.
Victory Chemicals is making its toxic and likely radioactive sludge into bricks to give to villagers. But they doesn’t find many takers. The bricks now lie dumped near the riverbank, crumbling into the water and from there into the body of a plant, a fish, a human being. Factory workers come out and stand close to the car, arms crossed, hoping harsh stares will generate enough force to push our concern out of the way. The District Environmental Engineer is called. He tries to blow off the claim that the waste is toxic. When that fails, he shrilly professes total impotence to address contamination complaints, before issuing a command for clean up; which all present know is destined to be ignored.
Over time, the body loses its ability to cope with these chemicals designed to confound our natural systems, and each exposure gives a more and more severe effect.
A chemical that will have no visible effect on an adult, can have catastrophic effects on the developing fetus and the young child — dulling the mind, triggering birth defects, and setting the stage for autism, asthma, allergies and cancer. What may only make an adult nauseated, will cripple the dreams of a child and of a family for a healthy future; a whole and better life.
In the U.S., epidemics of cancer, autism, asthma, and reproductive birth defects in baby boys are sky high. Yet the air quality is far better in the U.S. than in most Indian cities. In India garbage piles are burnt spewing whole incinerator’s worth of dioxin into the common air. Americans benefit from better environmental standards and enforcement for vehicle and factory emissions. Both India and U.S. have addressed the air quality problems of their cities — particularly the places where the well-to-do live — by exporting the sources of pollution — Texas; Louisiana; Gary, Indiana; and the Port of Los Angeles are cases in point. The urban poor in either country would recognize these lit up refineries, chemical factories and power plants through the stinging fog.
Childhood cancer increased .6% a year from 1975-2002 according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. One in almost 7 women will suffer from breast cancer in their lifetimes; hormonally active toxins may be determining cancer outcomes for our children before they are even born.
We are just starting to see public discussion of the science of how certain chemicals attach to our DNA and are passed down from generation to generation. No longer is our chemical inheritance limited to in utero exposure and breast milk — fathers are now known to contribute the effects of their chemical exposures as well. This widespread low level toxic contamination has been building its biological trap for more than four generations. In the U.S. and U.K., one in 250 boys is born with a malformed penis; one in 200 with autism.
In a U.K. city the size of Chennai, that would be 208 little boys that will need corrective surgery shortly after birth. But in Chennai, many would never be able to afford it. It would be about 250 little autistic boys who will appear normal at birth, but may never learn to speak, to read, or to use the toilet.
SIPCOT’s pollution could well affect your children and grandchildren. Who eats this fish caught in Cuddalore? I would guess that Chennai is one of the markets, and the best fish likely end up in markets in Delhi and London. The chemicals SIPCOT is choking on, or the chemicals from hubs just like it around the world, find their way to you — though your food, settling on crops and concentrating in the dark tissue in fish.
This horror of low-level maiming is the cause for my wonderment, “How will my friends in the villages surrounding SIPCOT survive?” An enthusiastic community activist Arul Selvam informed us that SIPCOT was founded in 1984. Only 2 generations have been exposed to this growing stench so far. The teachers report that the children are far slower than in other schools; many chemicals used here are known to stunt mental growth, including those emited from a factory adjacent to the school. How can the grassroots organize when their very minds are being altered? There is no other option.
We, those who consume the products from the chemical hubs, must fight the polluters in solidarity with those most affected. We can change our own habits to cut off the market for toxic products at the ankles. But even after undertaking this, we cannot simply abandon the children in chemical hubs like SIPCOT — our future leaders — to the excruciating pain of cancer death, the stabbing humiliation from learning disabilities and the resulting teasing, the grief of being deprived the opportunity to become a mother or father.
The idea of detox medicine and facilities for SIPCOT’s poisoned residents could be called a pipe dream. Industrial poisoning is an abandoned step child of modern medicine. Those who strive to treat poisoning with environmental medicine, ayurveda, Chinese traditional medicine, yoga, nutritional changes and support are scorned by the medical establishment. Treatment for basic poisoning is denied in this way to the wealthiest clients of the American medical system. Those who are poisoned are too frequently sacrificed at the altar of medical ego. Worse, basic medical care is beyond the reach of so many around SIPCOT, and around the world. Access to medical care declines along with income for the poisoned fisherfolk. What can we hope to offer?
The Sambhanva Clinic in Bhopal, India has found yoga positions and organic herb growing at home, offer relief to Bhopal gas and water poisoning victims. One of the reasons these techniques are threatening to conventional physicians is their very accessibility for all, their inexpensive and therefore unprofitable nature. Integrated medical treatment of industrial poisoning? There are many such good ideas, many shoulds, woulds and coulds that can turn one poisoned person’s hell into a renewed hope for life. Those who chose to take the first step and act in support of the SIPCOT communities — like the members of Youth for Social Change in Madras, are working an invisible magic, setting the stage for larger changes.
I dream not only of stopping the expansion of SIPCOT and its current polluters, but also of seeing effective treatment for those already poisoned there. Like any other daunting challenge, it can be simplified to the happiness you are creating in one other person’s life and also your own. The beneficiary of this work I imagine, is a child who can smile without a cleft lip, a mother who can breathe enough to complete her daily work, a father who is proudly able to conceive. When I speak about other Bhopals and the ongoing chemical experiment we are all part of, I will describe this perfectly normal child — a dream, a vision, and decreasing probability.
Currently exposure to extremely common chemicals, like 2,4 D — found in Scott’s Weed n’ Feed, has no long term treatment protocol in the U.S. Those suffering from long term effects of toxic exposure must plow through a revolving door of specialists and disparate alternative medical practicioners spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours chasing relief. If environmental physicians coordinated with integrative medicine practitioners to share knowledge and treatment protocols internationally perhaps simple detox practices could be made available in SIPCOT and hundreds of communities like it.
It may take 20 years for such a vision to materialize. I hope it will take less time to see real pollution control implemented in Cuddalore. In standing up against toxic trespass, the imposition of unwanted chemicals unto our bodies, local organizers are working for the fundamental right to health and for the smile of a perfectly normal, healthy child.