Toxic city

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 31 December 1995

Living in Delhi these days is a toxic experience. The water is 'filthy. The air is foul. Everybody knows all that but nobody does much. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to address a group of medical scientists at a local medical college, one which serves a relatively poorer area of the city. Speaker after speaker talked of Delhi's worsening pollution and the attendant risks, like the fire that gobbled up the plastics wastes market in Jwalapuri.

There was much talk of cancer and how we might witness an idemic if people did not wake up in time. When my turn came, I appealed to the audience that talking was not enough. They must make efforts to create public opinion on these issues. And nobody can do it better than doctors. Yet for some reason they are not doing this job at all.

It is almost impossible to find any study on the health impacts .of air pollution in Delhi. Unless the medical profession comes up with such studies, the public will just not wake up to the threat. And given the fact that many Indians live in poor economic and nutritional conditions, it is very important that we try to optimally prevent cancers than create conditions that lead to an epidemic, and then demand expensive curative facilities. The country cannot afford that.

I told them that our understanding of the growing environmental toxification remains very poor. Way back in the days of Rajiv Gandhi, I had been asked by the Prime Minister's Office to chair a committee to decide on a site for a fer-tiliser plant near the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan's Sawai Madhopur district. The matter had been hanging fire for a long time. And the Pm was keen that a committee should take a final look at the issue and decide.

We were told that the key question was the impact of the fertiliser plant on the national park which was nearly 20 kin away from the proposed site. But when we went there, we found that there was a tremendous water shortage in the area. The entire effluent from the factory would go into a dry nullah and all the effluents would get carried to the equally dry, sandy bed of the Banas river. A few kilo metres below was the water supply point for the Sawai Madhopur town. A number of borewells had been dug into the river bed, and was supplying water to the town once every two days. From a manual of the United Nations Environment Programme I learnt that the nitrogenous compounds in the effluents could torm introsamines in the environment, which are potent carcinogens. 1, therefore, had a query for my colleagues, especially as one of them was the director of the Industrial Toxicological Research Centre: given the high temperatures of Sawai Madhopur, would the formation of nitrosamines get accelerated or retarded? Nobody had an answer. Finally, we took the cautious way out and said "no" to setting up the plant.

More than 10 years ago, the Bhopal disaster caught u's napping. For days nobody knew which gas had hit the people, not to speak of what treatment was required. The Jwalapuri fire also caused confusion over the gases that may have been produced during the fire. Many poor patients had rushed to the very hospital where 1, was speaking that day.

I said that I was speaking not just as an environmental activist but also as an environmental victim. While they were talking of a 'possible' cancer epidemic, I have actually been afflicted 71it-fi-=-extremely rare cancer called the central nervous system and ocular lymphoma, of which there are not even 200 medically recorded cases worldwide.

There is considerable confusion over why all types of lymphomas - a cancer of the immune system cells - are increasing. Studies in various parts of the world have linked lymphomas to exposure to certain herbicides like 2,4-D and organo hosphate esticides, whose use has increased dramatica y over the last 40 years. Other studies have linked lymphomas to organic solvents used widely in industry and which_cYn_Te_aj -toa general exposure of the population through commercial products and contamination of drinking water sources. This exposure too has been growing over time. We know that people in Delhi are exposed to very high levels Of DDT and lead but the general public is aware of little else. Our toxicologists and doctors must not only play a scientific but also an activist role as well to warn us about the threats we face. Who else is going to make us sit up and act? I know of one other environmentalist in Delhi who has been afflicted with a lymphoma in recent years. Does not the medical and scientific profession owe us all a responsibility?

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