CHENNAI, June 5, 2006: Two samples from Tamilnadu, out of 21 air samples taken from various parts of India, were found to be among three most polluted samples in a first-of-its-kind National study of toxic gases in ambient air. An air sample from open garbage burning in Perungudi contained the highest number of chemicals found in any Indian sample — 27 chemicals, including carcinogenic 1,3-butadiene and benzene at 34782 and 2360 times higher than levels considered safe for residential air by US Environmental Protection Agency. Another sample taken from near the effluent discharge point into the River Kaveri by Chemplast Sanmar’s PVC plant in Mettur dam also qualified among three
most polluted samples because it contained 6 cancer-causing chemicals in the 17 that were detected. Carcinogenic vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene di chloride were found at more than 2000 and 32,000 times higher than safe levels. Both chemicals are used as raw materials for the manufacture of PVC by Chemplast.
The study titled “Smoke Screen – Ambient Air Quality in India” reports the presence of 45 chemicals, including 13 carcinogens, in 21 samples taken from various locations in India. Thirteen samples were taken from Tamilnadu, including from
Mettur, Perungudi, Manali industrial area in North Chennai, downwind of Sterlite factory in Tuticorin and the SIPCOT industrial complex in Cuddalore. The samples were taken with the help of a “Bucket” – a low-cost air sampling tool that contains a special plastic bag housed within a bucket. The special bag serves as a container for the air sample, and is detached after the sample is taken and couriered to a US EPA-certified laboratory in California.
The report is unique for India because it analyses air samples for 67 toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and 20 Sulphur compounds in the air. None of these chemicals are being systematically monitored by the government, and no standards exist for them in ambient air despite evidence that many of the reported chemicals exert severe health effects. In September 2004, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) instructed the Central Pollution Control Board to set standards for the toxic gases. In 1999-2000, the Ministry of Environment set aside $7.5 million, including for monitoring and setting standards for toxic gases. Neither task was fulfilled.
The 45 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, heart, the peripheral nervous system, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, and the bone marrow.
“The Bucket results confirm that many communities in Tamil Nadu are living in a slow-motion Bhopal. For years, the Pollution Control Board and the Tamilnadu Government have ignored community complaints about nasty odours and health problems,” said Cuddalore-based M. Nizamudeen of FEDCOT. “We hope that the new Government will be more responsive to people’s problems, and utilize the fact that they are in control of the Central Environment ministry to accelerate the standards setting process, and strengthen enforcement.”
The findings of the report have troubling implications for women, infants and the elderly. Not only are these populations more vulnerable to pollution, those among them who live near industries, crowded traffic junctions and garbage dumps are also likely to be exposed for longer durations to air pollution than children or men who may escape to cleaner work places or schools for at least 8 hours of the day.
“Internationally, standards exist to regulate toxic chemicals in ambient air. India should leapfrog over other nations and prescribe stringent standards especially as it is poised to more than double its industrial capacity in coming years,” said Denny Larson of US-based Global Community Monitor. Larson has introduced the bucket sampling device to communities in more than 12 countries. According to him, the Indian samples are the worst among those seen from 12 countries.
Tamilnadu groups have called for increased commitment to environmental issues. Pointing out to the fact that it is the Environment Secretary who holds additional responsibility as TNPCB chairman, Tamilnadu groups have called for the appointment of a full-time chairperson as a matter of priority. They have also demanded that the TNPCB apply for central funds to set up VOC and sulphur gases monitoring stations in Manali, Mettur, Cuddalore, Tuticorin and other heavily industrialized pockets. The State government should independently set standards for toxic gases in the air, and not wait for the center.
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