New Delhi, 3 June 2006: Millions of Indians are exposed to dangerous levels of highly toxic gases, including Volatile Organic Compounds and Sulphur gases, through the air they breathe, according to a report released by Chennai-based Community Environmental Monitoring. Titled “Smokescreen: Ambient Air Quality in India,” the report documents at least 45 chemicals, including 13 carcinogens, that were found in 21 air samples taken from 13 locations around the country between 2004 and 2006. Twenty-eight chemicals were found at levels up to 32,000 times higher than levels considered safe in residential air by US environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). The samples have been taken from residential areas and public thoroughfares in or near industrial areas, effluent discharge channels, smoldering garbage dumps and toxic waste facilities that include landfills and incinerators. The chemicals found target virtually every system in the human body eyes, central nervous system, skin and respiratory system, liver, kidneys, blood, cardiovascular system, reproductive system.
India has no standards for these chemicals in ambient air. As a result, there is neither monitoring for nor regulation of the toxic gases in ambient air. After nearly a century of industrialization, as India is poised to nearly double its industrial capacity in the coming years, our nation is pathetically behind in terms of its infrastructure to safeguard its environment or the health of people from air pollution, said Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring. “Air pollution monitoring and regulation is primitive, and the world’s fourth largest economy has no standards for some of the most toxic and commonly found air pollutants.”
In September 2004, pursuant to a report by Cuddalore-based SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee directed the Central Pollution Control Board to lay down standards for VOC and Sulphur gases. But the task has not been done till date. Even worse, as early as in 1999-2000, the Ministry had provided $6.5 million for “Ambient Air Quality Monitoring” for benzene and other VOCs, and set aside an additional $1 million (Rs. 4.5 crores) for setting standards for VOCs. The outcome of this project is not known. Meanwhile, regulators are refusing to acknowledge community concerns about air pollution stating that nothing can be done because no standards exist.
“It is suicidal to dismiss community complaints of odours from chemical factories, or burning garbage dumps, or traffic pollution as a mere nuisance. Odours indicate the presence of potentially toxic chemicals which have real health effects and effects on the economy,” said Denny Larson of US based Global Community Monitor (GCM). According to 1995 estimates in a study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, total annual economic losses due to air pollution could exceed 9000 crores equivalent to about 1 percent of the GDP.
“The sweet smell of nail polish may indicate the presence of acetone; a rotten cabbage smell means sulphur-carrying mercaptans; hydrogen sulphide smells of rotten eggs and so on,” said M. Nizamudeen of FEDCOT, an activist working with the pollution-impacted communities in the SIPCOT chemicals industrial estate in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. Community monitors in SIPCOT have cdocumented 36 different odours through a unique odour monitoring exercise in the chemical estate.
Some of the notable samples included:
Delhi Traffic junction at ITO: 18 chemicals found; cancer-causing benzene 104 times higher than the safe levels
Chemplast Sanmar PVC factory in Mettur Dam: 17 chemicals including six carcinogens; 1,2-diclhoroethane 32000 times above the safe levels.
Garbage burning in Perungudi, Tamil Nadu: 27 chemicals found, including carcinogenic 1,3-butadiene and benzene at 34782 times and 2360 times higher than safe levels respectively.
Landfill Gas at Hindustan Insecticides Ltd, Kerala: The only sample that detected hexachlorobutadiene, an indicator of dioxin one of the most poisonous chemicals known to science.
The report was released today by Ms. Sunita Naraian of Centre for Science and Environment, and followed by a panel discussion addressed by Dr. D. B. Boralkar, Chairman Maharashtra Polution Control Board, and Dr. B. Sengupta, and Dr. Chandrabhushan of CSE. Others addressing the meeting include: M. Nizamudeen, FECOT (Tamil Nadu); occupational health specialist Vijay Kanhere; V. Purushan of Periyar Anti-pollution Committee and Shibu Nair of Thanal Kerala.
Groups involved in the National Air Toxics exercise include: West Konur Farmers Association (Mettur), Save Palliakarnai Marshlands Forum (Chennai), The Other Media (Delhi), Global Community Monitor (USA), Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (Gujarat), Patancheru Anti-pollution Committee (Andhra Pradesh), Farmers Action Group (Surat), and Citizens Against Pollution (Andhra Pradesh), Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samiti and Thanal of Kerala.
GCM has played a major role in popularizing the Bucket sampling device used by communities in Phillipines, South Africa, USA, Australia, India and many others for grabbing polluted air samples for analyses. Bucket samples, such as the 21 taken from India, are sent to a US EPA accredited laboratory in California, where they are tested for 67 VOCs and 20 sulphur gases.
A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.
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