The Indian reality

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

The Indian reality

-- Indians are yet to realise the gravity of dioxin contamination and its related health effects. The government has not conducted any study to find out the level of dioxin exposure in the population. The laid back attitude of the government is reflected by the fact that nowhere in the country dioxins are monitored. But absence of evidence does not indicate evidence of absence. The us epa clearly states that "the lack of clear indication of diseases in the general population attributable to dioxin-like compounds should not be considered strong evidence for no effects of exposure to dioxins. Rather a lack of clear indication of diseases may be result of the inability of our current data and scientific tools to directly detect effects at these levels of exposure."

Environmentalists agree that dioxins are being produced all over the country but due to lack of any scientific studies, no one knows the magnitude of the problem. "Neither the existence of dioxins nor the sources of dioxins are currently officially acknowledged by the government agencies. There exists no data on dioxin levels in the country," reveals Nityanand Jayaraman, Asia Toxic Campaigner.

A major source of dioxins in India is poly vinyl chloride ( pvc ), both during its production and disposal. Burning of unsegregated waste containing pvc is a common practice in India. What is frightening is the fact that plastic percentage is increasing in our waste and pvc is extensively used in the country (see graph: PVC: picking up). The Central Pollution Control Board ( cpcb ) estimates that the per capita consumption of plastic has gone up from 1.7 kg in 1997 to 4 kg in 2000. Other estimates point out that in the next two years, pvc capacity in India is expected to increase by around 1,30,000 tonnes . At present, Indian plastic industry produces more than 70,000 tonnes of pvc a month. At current rates, pvc supply will fall short of demand, which is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate ( cgar ) of 13 per cent. The shortage will mean importing more pvc , generating more pvc waste, burning more pvc , and finally producing more dioxins.

With unsegregated plastic waste growing, burning is the normal practice for disposal. Says Bharati Chaturvedi, director of New-Delhi based non-governmental organisation ( ngo) , Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, "Rather than having large 'factories' of dioxins in India, we have small 'factories' spread all across the country, where monitoring and enforcement becomes very difficult. And these 'factories' are our backyards." She adds, " The government offices themselves burn chlorinated waste and produce dioxins. A building like Krishi Bhawan in New Delhi, which houses Indian ministerial departments, produces huge amount of paper waste daily. But due to 'security' reasons waste pickers are not allowed to collect the waste. Instead, the waste is burnt, leading to dioxin emissions."

Production of chlorinated paper is also a source of dioxins. And the Indian paper industry is a big polluter (see box: Paper industry: the big dioxin factory ).

Another well-known source of dioxins is the biomedical waste ( bmw ) incinerators. Environmentalists raised a lot of hue and cry about dioxins during 1996 when the Biomedical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules were being discussed. The debate got impetus when a public interest litigation (pil) was filed by B L Wadhera, a Delhi-based environmental lawyer, in the Delhi High Court (hc) in 1998. His cause of concern was that the burning of waste and human anatomical parts in hospital incinerators was leading to toxic emissions, which could cause cancer. In December 2000, the court directed the cpcb to inspect hospitals in the capital and find out if dioxins were being emitted and to what extent.Complying with the hc order, cpcb carried out inspection in eight premier hospitals of Delhi, including All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( aiims ) and Safdarjung hospital, and submitted its report in January 2001. The report revealed that none of the hospital incinerators were following the prescribed norms. Inspite of the Biomedical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 1998 which ban the burning of pvc , most hospitals were flouting the rules. Not a single incinerator maintained proper temperatures in the secondary chamber as specified by the bmw Rules 1998. Emission standards, as stipulated in the rules, were not being followed.

The cpcb report elaborates upon the kind of waste being burnt in the incinerators, but hardly makes any mention of dioxins. All it mentions is that 'the dioxins can be emitted from the hospital incinerators if the temperature of combustion is low and if chlorinated plastics such as pvc is present in the waste. The dioxins can also be formed if combustion is not complete in the secondary chamber'. Says Bharat Sharma, assistant environmental engineer, cpcb, Delhi, "We informed the court that cpcb does not have equipment or resources to monitor dioxins, hence cannot say anything."

Other studies share similar findings and point out that Indian incinerators are at best furnaces. For instance, a two-month study undertaken by New Delhi-based ngo Srishti in 2000 revealed that Delhi has about 59 bmw incinerators, which is an 80 per cent increase in last two years. The survey found out that sixty per cent of the incinerators were functioning under low temperature and 38 per cent of hospitals were incinerating plastic waste and would be producing dioxins. Not just Delhi, in Mumbai too out of the 10 bmw incinerators, eight lacked basic design parameters. Burning of pvc in incinerators in Chennai also goes on unabated. This fact is well accepted by government officials. Sharma admits, "Although the bmw Rules ban burning pvc , the practice continues in the hospitals."

Even when pvc -coated copper wires are not burnt in big fires, they are openly melted by ragpickers, who get a good price for copper. Agarwal says that recovering copper cables from pvc sheaths is hazardous as it will produce dioxins.

Whereas the problem of dioxins seems to be increasing by leaps and bounds in the country, the government is tightlipped on the issue. There is a lack of monitoring mechanism for dioxins in the country. This absence is ascribed to the high cost involved. Says Sharma, "Monitoring dioxins involves huge amounts of money. Every sample collected needs to be treated with a different solution, which is very expensive." The cost, say experts, can be as high as us $ 600 to us $ 800 per sample.

The casual approach of government officials towards the public health problem of dioxins becomes evident when questioned about dioxins standards in the country. Whereas a senior cpcb official proudly claims that in India "we have our own guideline values for dioxins emissions", another official informs Down To Earth that such Indian standards are absent. We learn, India follows the us epa guidelines for dioxin emissions, which are separate for new (2.3 and 0.6 nanogram per dry standard cubic metre (ng/dscm)) and existing (2.3 ng/dscm) medical waste incinerators. But these values hold no weight in India as monitoring devices are not in place.

On the one hand bmw incinerators would presumably continue to emit deadly dioxins, on the other hand, Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (mnes) has embarked on the waste-to-energy (wte) programme in the country. Under the programme, it is promoting burning of waste to produce energy. But again it fails to address the problem of dioxins. "Pelletisation means compressing waste to make pellets, which are burnt to produce energy. But Indian cities generate mixed waste, which often contains chlorinated stuff. Burning such pellets again means releasing dioxins," says Ravi Agarwal, Srishti's coordinator.Fires in the buildings also lead to dioxin emissions as the maximum amount of pvc (38 per cent) is used by the Indian construction industry. Even when pvc-coated copper wires are not burnt in big fires, they are openly melted by ragpickers, who get a good price for copper. Agarwal says that recovering copper cables from pvc sheaths is hazardous as it will produce dioxins. Whereas the problem of dioxins seems to be increasing by leaps and bounds in the country, the government is tightlipped on the issue. There is a lack of monitoring mechanism for dioxins in the country. This absence is ascribed to the high cost involved. Says Sharma, "Monitoring dioxins involves huge amounts of money. Every sample collected needs to be treated with a different solution, which is very expensive." The cost, say experts, can be as high as us $ 600 to us $ 800 per sample.

The casual approach of government officials towards the public health problem of dioxins becomes evident when questioned about dioxins standards in the country. Whereas a senior cpcb official proudly claims that in India "we have our own guideline values for dioxins emissions", another official informs Down To Earth that such Indian standards are absent. We learn, India follows the us epa guidelines for dioxin emissions, which are separate for new (2.3 and 0.6 nanogram per dry standard cubic metre (ng/dscm)) and existing (2.3 ng/dscm) medical waste incinerators. But these values hold no weight in India as monitoring devices are not in place.

Dealing with dioxins
Prevention is the key to deal with the problem of dioxins. For India, prevention becomes all the more important because we cannot afford the costly dioxin control mechanisms. Agarwal avers, "Prevention is better than cure and since we have not made large investments in waste technologies, we should look at a preventive rather than the end-of-pipe approach. Do not repeat the mistakes of other countries."

A large amount of dioxins can be prevented from being released in India if pvc products are labelled. "Since people using plastic are not able to differentiate between pvc and non-pvc products, some type of colour coding could prove useful," says Chaturvedi. Questions Agarwal, "Although the government has banned the burning of pvc but has not mandated the labelling of it. So how does it ensure that pvc is not burnt?"

Another option is to introduce the concept of extended producer responsibility (epr) whereby the manufacturer and distributor is made responsible for the packaging it creates, thus avoiding littering of chlorinated packaging material. Various types of 'eco-taxes' could be proposed to change consumer behaviour and move them away from hazardous products like pvc.

The options for disposal are limited. Either the waste is carefully segregated to remove pvc material and burnt in technically compliant incinerators. Or the waste is disinfected and shredded to be disposed of in a landfill without contaminating soil or water. There are many non-burn medical waste technologies now available namely autoclaves and microwaves. Autoclaving or steam sterilization is a process where waste is exposed to steam for a sufficient temperature/pressure/ time period to assure the destruction of microorganisms. Steam temperatures are usually maintained at 121 c or slightly higher and the process runs for 15 to 30 minutes. Steam disinfects the waste, which can further be reused or recycled.

Another option is microwaving of medical waste. This technology relies on treating hospital waste with moist heat and conventional microwaves at temperatures of 940 c to disinfect it before disposing in landfill.

The Super Critical Water Method pulverizes the waste (plastic), mixes it with water at about 500 c to break it down into gas, oil and water. By controlling the temperature and pressure, light oil, gasoline or heavy oil can be recovered.

Averting a catastrophe
Dioxins are the most intricate chemicals known to us and much more research will be needed to identify the various sources of dioxins. But already, many countries are phasing out uses of chlorine and pvc. Germany, for instance, has banned use of pvc in building construction. People are demanding healthy waste disposal methods . Manila, Philippines, has already banned all incineration. And although the chemical industry is using its might to misinform and delay action, public pressure is bound to mount. n



========================================================== Written by Tirtho Banerjee with inputs from Chitra Gopalakrishnan, Washington, Gopal Krishna and Nidhi Jamwal

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