Poison in the air

in Cuddalore
The Hindu
04 June, 2005

Poisonous gases released into the air by some chemical units in the SIPCOT industrial estate in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, continue to endanger the lives and livelihoods of people in a number of villages in the absence of government action.

At the SIPCOT industrial estate in Cuddalore. Gases released by chemical units have severely affected the air quality in the area.

VILLAGES in the industrial area on the outskirts of Cuddalore town in Tamil Nadu are increasingly being identified more by pungent smells than their names – smells of rotten cabbage, burnt rubber, rotten egg, neem, detergent, human excreta, decomposing bodies, mosquito coils, rotting bones, decaying chikoo fruit, and nail polish. The smells come from toxic chemical compounds that are manufactured or released as effluents by the 18 companies in the industrial area and which have been damaging the environment and the health of more than 20,000 people in about 20 villages.

Cuddalore, 25 km from Pondicherry, is part of an intricate network of estuaries, deltas, creeks, lagoons, salt-marshes, sanctuaries and coral reefs that serve as a natural breeding ground and habitat for various species of fish. This unique topography shelters and feeds lakhs of people through fishery and agriculture. Fringed by the sea and with fertile soil, Cuddalore is an idyllic 27 sq km town of verdant fields of sugarcane, groundnut and rice, and casuarina and coconut plantations.

In 1982, the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) set up of a 200-hectare industrial estate 8 km away from Cuddalore town, on the Cuddalore-Chidambaram coastal road. Financial incentives, uninterrupted power and water supply and an excellent communication network saw companies, big and small, setting up units to manufacture pesticides, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, dyes and textiles. The success of the first phase prompted SIPCOT to set up a second, 80-ha facility with, among others, a large polyvinylchloride (PVC) manufacturing and processing unit. Now 18 units operate in the SIPCOT estate, and four just outside it. One unit in the estate was closed on May 18 after an accident.

Ever since SIPCOT set up the estate, life for the thousands of people of Pachaiyankuppam, Thaikal, Thiyagavelli, Eachangadu, Kudikadu, Karaikadu, Sonnanchavadi, Sangolikuppam, Nellikupam and Pondiyankuppam villages has been one of dealing with hazardous effluents such as methanol, acetaldehyde, formic acid, ammonia, toulene, nitrobenzene, methyl mercaptan and vinyl acetate monomer. This chemical concoction has impaired seriously their lives and livelihood systems. The people complain of constant irritation in the eyes, nausea, acute dermatitis, muscle fatigue, and pink and frothy sputum, and have been diagnosed with changed reproductive health effects, narcosis and cyanosis. There has also been a substantial contamination of the water table, the air and the soil, leading to lowered farm production and dwindling fish catch. Many studies have reported that the industrial estate has altered the riverine ecosystem, even poisoned the river, affecting farm output and killing fish. This has affected the livelihoods of farmers and fisherfolk.

Groundwater situation

Potable groundwater, which was earlier available at less than 30 feet (nine metres), is now difficult to find even at 800 feet (244 m). The industrial units used borewells to tap groundwater for all their water requirements, amounting to more than 20 million litres a day. The local people, who depend on groundwater, say that the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) issued a circular last year advising banks to stop granting loans for agricultural pumpsets in order to stop the sinking of more borewells. But the industries continue to sink borewells, the people say.


In 1994, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned of saline water intrusion in the area: “Since the aquifer in Cuddalore is close to the coast, there is a danger of sea water intrusion if there is severe depletion of its quantity without adequate recharge. Present data show the saline intrusion has already happened in the Cuddalore area.” In fact, in Sangolikuppam village alone about 300 handpumps are not usable because of saline water ingress.

Chemical pollution

People report odorous (sewer, metal or aromatic substances), coloured water (yellow, red or black) that has an oily or burning taste – all indicating the presence of chemicals.

A 2003 report on Environment and Human Rights by the Indian People’s Tribunal states that “all villages within or in the immediate vicinity of SIPCOT suffer from serious groundwater pollution. Handpumps between Thaikalthonithurai and Semmankuppam have been abandoned. A handpump behind one of the factories pumped out black water that smelled of sewage.”

Dwindling fish catch

The fish catch has dropped by nearly 80 per cent and fish varieties have disappeared. This is largely attributed to the contamination of the river where fish-kills are apparently common. According to the local people, they no longer catch bottom-dwelling fish such as kezhangan, udupullati and irunpalathi.

Falling farm incomes

From three crops a year, farmers now harvest two or, in some places just one, and productivity has also fallen drastically. For instance, farmers now get less than 50 bags of paddy a hectare as against 100 bags earlier. Dwindling margins have pushed the net income (accounting for family labour) into the negative.

Proof of devastation has been coming in for many years now. In 1999, an analysis of groundwater around Eachangadu and Kudikadu by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute showed that three-fourths of the water samples were yellow or brown, had disagreeable taste and had total dissolved solids exceeding limits that could have a laxative effect if consumed. In more than half the samples taken from Eachangadu, chloride and manganese levels were present far above the permissible levels. Excess manganese can damage the brain, the liver and kidneys, as well as foetuses.

The IPT report wanted the “polluter pays” principle enforced strictly, to hold industries accountable for environmental damage and to compensate victims. “More than 25 chemical industries, including pesticide, dyestuff and pharmaceutical plants, operate along a 4-km coastal strip without appropriate infrastructure to deal with toxic effluents or hazardous wastes,” the report said.

The IPT, headed by J. Kanakaraj, retired Judge of the Madras High Court, observed: “SIPCOT industries have polluted the environment, and continue to do so. We are also convinced that adequate and appropriate steps have not been taken by regulatory authorities, particularly the TNPCB [Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board], to prevent pollution and health damage. Neither has the government paid any attention to the concerns and complaints of villagers.”

The IPT echoed the recommendation of the State Human Rights Commission that water-intensive or polluting industries should not be set up in the SIPCOT region. “SIPCOT Phase II should be restricted to non-polluting industries that are not water-intensive,” the IPT recommended.

The IPT issued a 20-point recommendation covering various aspects, including land acquisition claims, health and environmental remediation, financial compensation for damage to health and livelihood, and relocation of pollution-impacted people who choose to move out. The IPT also asked the government to take action against polluting units and facilities operating without a valid licence from the TNPCB.

However, despite all the evidence and the frequent complaints by residents, the TNPCB, which is supposed to monitor effluent discharge from these units, continued to deny that these industrial units caused any harm to the environment.

Such official apathy and the setting up of a new unit to manufacture “rocket fuel” has increased the anxiety of the local people, but they continue to keep up the pressure on the authorities. For years they have complained about the intense chemical odour that assaults their homes at all times. “At night, the stench engulfs us. We just can’t breathe. There’s nothing we can do except go indoors and shut all the doors. We can’t bear it. Our eyes burn. We feel like somebody is tearing us apart, and our chests feel tight every time the wind brings the smell,” says a resident of Eachangadu.

According to reliable sources, The IPT members who visited SIPCOT reported a noticeable stench of chemicals in the air. Chemical odour can be an indicator of serious chemical pollution. Air pollutants are particularly dangerous because unlike water- or food-borne toxins, many of them enter the brain directly upon inhalation.

According to reliable sources, neither the TNPCB, which keeps a check on the quality of the environment, nor the Factories Inspectorate, which ensures safety in the workplace, has presented any scientific study of the odorous chemicals or the health problems that may have been caused by them.

Unfortunately, Indian regulators have treated chemical odour merely as a nuisance and dismissed the people’s complaints off hand. However, the local people, using an innovative device called the `bucket’, collected samples of air at people’s nose-level and sent them to a laboratory in the United States, for want of a testing facility in India. The U.S. laboratory found 22 dangerous chemicals in the samples, and that too way above the limits for air pollution in the U.S. Some parameters were found to be more than 21,000 times the permissible level.

As for the standards set by the authorities in India, there are none. Says S. Pugazhendhi, a local resident who is also an environmental monitor: “There are no standards in India to regulate these things. They say they are working on it.”

At the SIPCOT industrial estate in Cuddalore, the people have formed their own environmental monitoring committee and quantified their “gassing”.

Most of the residents, even children, can tell you the name of the company they are standing downwind of just by the smell, says S. Ramanathan of Semmankuppam, a member of the recently formed SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring (SACEM), a community group that comprises village volunteers trained in monitoring, documenting and taking evidence-based action on pollution with help from the Cuddalore chapter of the Federation of Consumer Organisations (FEDCOT), the California-based Global Community Monitor (GCM) and environmental and human rights groups.

Says Shweta Narayan, coordinator of the Community Environmental Monitoring project: “Our project is aimed at equipping villagers with the ability to convert their common-sense observations on pollution into a language that regulators cannot ignore.” For the first time in India, the air that people living near industries breathe has been tested for toxic gases, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds.

The monitors are trained in the use of the “bucket” to take air samples, and in monitoring, reporting and acting on pollution or occupational injury incidents. The training in the “bucket” technology was conducted in March 2004 by Denny Larson of the GCM, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Larson is one of the key persons involved in developing and testing the “bucket”.

Larson, who has worked with the `bucket’ for nine years around the world, has been quoted as saying that in Cuddalore the “levels of some of the chemicals are at least 1,000 times higher than what we saw in other developing countries like South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines”. Larson’s organisation is a partner in the Community Environmental Monitoring project.

In September 2004, SACEM published its first report on chemical odour episodes at SIPCOT. For the first time in India, the ambient air was tested for 89 toxic gases. The report, `Gas Trouble: Air Quality in SIPCOT, Cuddalore’, found 22 toxic gases, of which at least 13 were used as raw materials by one or more of the SIPCOT units.

At least in the case of 14 of the 22 chemicals, including trichloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, acrolein, methylene chloride and hydrogen sulphide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety levels are violated. A cancer-causing compound 1,2-dichloroethane, which was found in an air sample taken downwind of a chemical unit, exceeded safety levels by a factor of 22,973. The levels of hydrogen sulphide, a gas that smells of rotten egg, in the air sample taken downwind of another unit was 874 times the USEPA safety level.

The report summarised the data gathered over 14 weeks between April and July 2004. The monitors recorded 283 chemical odour episodes, of which 223 were intense. They were able to discern 36 different odours and 30 immediate health symptoms related to them. “Until recently, we would talk only in general about pollution. But now we see and understand the details, and this is helpful in communicating pollution as a problem,” says Pugazhendhi.

The report justifies the SIPCOT villagers’ demands for continuous monitoring of the air, including monitoring for toxic gases, an aggressive air pollution elimination programme, long-term health monitoring, specialised health care facilities for SIPCOT residents, and a ban on setting up or expanding any polluting facility at SIPCOT.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, not a single health study has been conducted till date in the SIPCOT area. The TNPCB does not monitor for toxic gases in the industrial estate, and what basic data it has on air pollution have not been released to the public. According to FEDCOT general secretary M. Nizammudin, the TNPCB has set up an air monitoring device inside the SIPCOT office but it is of no use. For, according to him, the air sample has to be collected from the right place at the right time, taking into account the wind direction. None of these parameters necessary for air monitoring can be followed in this case.

The findings of the report have very troubling implications, particularly for women, children and elderly people, who spend most of their time within the polluted confines of SIPCOT. Said Shweta Narayan, “Pregnant women, foetuses and children are most at risk of exposure. These chemicals can attack children at a very vulnerable stage of development and may, in many cases, permanently damage their ability to fight diseases or affect their mental, physical and sexual development.”

The report triggered instant reactions from a number of agencies. The Madras High Court directed the State legal aid cell to file a public interest petition on the matter. The State Human Rights Commission, taking suo motu notice of the report’s findings, asked the TNPCB to respond. And the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to set ambient air quality standards for toxic gases, and directed the State Pollution Control Board to bring down by June 2005 the levels of air pollution below USEPA-prescribed safe levels or order the companies to shut down.

According to Nizammudin, strangely, on October 11, 2004, when the CPCB was studying the air pollution levels, it did not contact the Village Monitors whose pollution patrols and sampling had resulted in the `Gas Trouble’ report. Instead, the CPCB team was taken around the SIPCOT estate by industry representatives.

The May 2005 report, “Gas Trouble II”, by SACEM shows clearly that less than a month to the deadline, the air continues to be polluted. Between October 2004 and March 2005, SACEM took four air samples in the “bucket”. The findings revealed the presence of 12 hazardous chemicals, of which seven exceeded the USEPA’s permissible level. For example, the presence of trichloroethylene, a highly toxic chemical and a known carcinogen, exceeded the permissible levels by a factor of 909, and acrolein by a factor of 304.

The Local Area Environment Committee (LAEC) set up by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee has expressed concern over the lack of progress by the TNPCB in reducing toxic chemical effluents. After a surprise visit of the SIPCOT industrial area on April 21, 2005, advocate T. Mohan, chairperson of the Cuddalore LAEC, wrote to the TNPCB Chairperson: “On my night visit to the estate, I was assailed by a cocktail of malodours. It is clear that these industries are yet to address the odour problem effectively.”

Says Nizammudin: “Even while efforts, seemingly to respond to the environmental crisis in SIPCOT, are on, it is business as usual for the State government. At least three new industrial proposals now threaten the residents of SIPCOT.”

Says Shweta Narayan: “All monitoring activities done by the villagers have a sound science, which is translating into action. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee has indicated that the industry has to restore air quality. A public interest petition was also admitted in the Madras High Court. But what is surprising is that with all this scientific evidence, there are more industrial plans in the offing.”

According to Shweta Narayan, the most frightening of the three new proposals is the one for a 38-tonne-a-month ammonium perchlorate unit. The deadly chemical is used as a fuel in spacecraft and missiles. Perchlorate is a common and persistent groundwater toxin that can inhibit the functioning of the thyroid in those exposed to it. Particularly at risk are foetuses, nursing infants, children and pregnant women who tend to have low levels of thyroid hormones to start with. Thyroid malfunction affects the mental and physical development of children, impairs vision, movement, hearing and behaviour, leads to enlarged thyroid glands and possible thyroid tumours. Children born to mild-to-moderate iodine deficient mothers can suffer from low intelligence quotient (IQ) and impaired brain development, according to scientific literature. Add to these problems the risk of an explosion. In Cuddalore, the same chemical is being manufactured by a small industry. Worse, there was no customary public hearing before the unit was started because the project was a small unit located within a notified industrial area. The assumption here is that a notified industrial area would meet the safety norms and criteria such as distance from habitation and water sources. Unfortunately, within 100 metres of this unit is a town bus stand, a house, an Electricity Board office and the edge of Semmankuppam village.

“If the government cares for people, the project should be dropped. Only clean industries that can provide safe jobs to villagers should be allowed in SIPCOT,” said Nizammudin.

According to Nithyanand Jayaraman, environmental activist associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and a researcher on the pollution caused by industries in Cuddalore, there is a high level of secrecy, insensitive governments, `accidents’ that have almost become routine, a downplaying of crises and complaints by the community about pollution and a lack of information on the nature of the industry and the chemicals used. He says: “There is a mini-Bhopal waiting to happen.”

The local people have organised several protests against the expansion of the programmes of the existing polluting

units as well as the setting up of new ones. Says T. Arulselvam, environmental coordinator, who participated in the May 5 protest: “We are looking long-term. It is not about conflict with the industry, but about the need to coexist and recognise our rights, particularly since the local economy, which had sustained us for generations, suddenly seems to be going awry and we are helplessly witnessing our incomes falling rapidly.”

This is the sentiment expressed by almost all those living in the villages in the Cuddalore SIPCOT area. According to Pugazhendhi, many people have planned to move to Chennai as labourers if the fish catch continues to dwindle. He says: “We have no choice. It is something we detest doing but would have to do just to survive.”


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Poison in the air
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