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Okhla waste to energy plant is spewing lead, other toxins into air, say residents

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Date:Apr 30, 2013

Air samples tested by independent agency under citizens monitoring programme

Air quality near the municipal waste incinerator in Sukhdev Vihar in south Delhi is life threatening, claim residents after they got air samples tested by an independent agency. Residents say the levels of fine particulate pollution around the incinerator would have “triggered a health warning of emergency conditions” had it been in the US. 

The air samples were taken as a part of the citizens monitoring programme, initiated by the residents who have been experiencing several health problems since the incineration of mixed waste began at the plant operated by the Jindal group. 

According to the results of the two air samples taken on behalf of the residents in March 2013 by Chennai based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the fine particulate pollution (particulate matter 2.5 and below) levels were found to be at “life threatening levels and the presence of the toxic metal lead was at hazardous levels as per Indian Ambient Air Quality Standards,” read the press release issued jointly by GAIA, residents of Ishwar Nagar and Sukhdev Vihar.

The results of the citizen’s samples and Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) documents were analysed by Mark Chernaik, a scientist associated with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), a global alliance of attorneys, scientists and other advocates. In his report, Chernaik notes  “emissions from the Timarpur- Okhla Waste Management Company (TOWMC) incinerator are creating hazardous air quality conditions, necessitating immediate abatement of pollutant emissions from source.”  

A series of stack monitoring reports conducted by DPCC between February 2012 and March 2013 also found at least five incidents of excess emissions from the plant which corroborate the findings of the air samples. An alarmingly high level of lead was also found in the “ash sample” collected by a resident, Vimal Monga, following an accident that took place in December 2012 in which large amount of fly ash from the plant chimney rained on the residential areas. According to the residents, the ash sample contained levels that were 30 times above what should be naturally found on earth’s crust. “This means that the plant operator is responsible for contaminating the entire neighbourhood and should be made to remediate the impacted area at his own cost. The government needs to enforce the polluter pays principle,” said U C Bahri, a scientist and a resident of Sukhdev Vihar. “There has been a significant increase in the respiratory illnesses among the residents. Several studies have already found Delhi’s air to be highly polluted due to vehicular pollution, then what is the logic behind locating a highly polluting facility like an incinerator in the middle of the city?” asked Anant Trivedi, a resident of the area. 

Particle pollution—especially fine particles—contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including premature death in people with heart or lung disease, non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

In the past, the largest source of lead in the atmosphere has been from leaded gasoline combustion, but with the phase-down of lead in gasoline, air lead levels have decreased considerably. Currently, the largest sources of airborne emissions are metals industries, including lead smelters and iron and steel production and waste incineration. 

Lead is a known neurotoxin. According to Center for Disease Control (CDC), children are more sensitive to the health effects of lead than adults. A child who ingests or breathes in elevated levels of lead is at risk of suffering irreversible IQ deficits. Acute lead poisoning can also cause death.

Residents say the lead emissions also suggest there are other more toxic substances being emitted by the plant but are not being tested by the authorities. The plant operator also does not have any technology in place to separate mixed waste, especially PVC from the waste stream as it had promised in its contract with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, they claimed. PVC incineration is prohibited under the Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2000 as it produces highly toxic dioxins and furans. 

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