Even after 50 years of Independence, freedom of information eludes the nation. Little is known of the state of India's environment. Efforts by the Centre for Science and Environment to find …

-- The poisoned hearth
A study established that PCBs were posing a threat to human health in Delhi .
A DOCTORATE study submitted by Satya Prakash Saxena to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( aiims) 12 years ago presented evidence that highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls ( pcbs) are present in high amounts in Delhi's environment. It recorded exceptionally high levels of these chemicals in samples of Delhi's population and in soil.

It should have immediately rung alarm bells. The entire government machinery should have been shaken, but not a leaf shook. It wasn't a case of ignorance, but of sheer carelessness about the threat to public health.

pcbs are persistent organic pollutants ( pops) - toxic chemicals that are difficult to break down into simpler, less harmful compounds by natural processes. Like other pops - dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane ( ddt) is the best known - pcbs are highly stable. Once they get into an organism, they degrade very slowly. Since they are not very soluble in water, they can be transported by rivers over land into the sea and carried as vapour over long distances by the wind. The symptoms of pcb poisoning in humans and animals include a painful skin condition called chloracne, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders as well as diseases of the liver and cancer (see box: Lethal cocktails ).

Saxena took a random sample from the general population not exposed to pcbs, and from occupationally exposed workers living in and around Delhi. He studied women with reproductive abnormalities like toxemia of pregnancy (where the blood of a pregnant woman becomes toxic), premature labour, spontaneous abortions (where no disease or disorder of the organs is known to have caused abortion). Tissues taken from cadavers (bodies) were also tested and high levels of pcbs found in the body fat.

The study found unusually high levels of pcbs - an average of 232 parts per billion - in the blood of workers engaged in manufacture, repair and maintenance of transformers. The level of pcb in the blood was found to be directly proportional to the duration of employment. It established that workers with high-exposure jobs like assembly, repair, packing and testing of transformers had higher levels of pcbs than workers in medium-exposure jobs (such as winding and case-making), and low-exposure jobs such as maintenance and sales.

People living close to industrial complexes had higher levels in their blood than residents in other areas. However, the difference in pcb levels found in the blood of the unexposed population was markedly lower than that found in the blood of exposed workers (see graph: Industrial disease ). Mean levels in general populations in developed countries where pcbs have been used most have ranged from 1.1 ppb to 8.3 ppb. The average of 17 ppb of pcbs found in the unexposed Delhi population was exceptionally high.

Women who had premature labour and toxemia of pregnancy showed higher pcbs levels than women with regular, full-term pregnancy. The levels in women with full-term pregnancy ranged from 6 ppb to 48 ppb, while pcbs in the blood of women in premature labour and with toxemia ranged from 8 ppb to 201 ppb. pcbs found in placental tissue and blood from umbilical cords of women undergoing normal pregnancy was in the range of 1-25 ppb and 4-28 ppb, respectively. On the other hand, women in premature labour had 14-125 ppb pcbs in placental tissue and 18-95 ppb in blood taken from umbilical cords.

pcbs in human whole milk in the sample ranged from 24 ppb to 156 ppb, a high level when compared with pcb levels found in other countries (see table: Milk of misery ).

Symptoms of pcb poisoning in occupa-tionally exposed workers studied by Saxena included muscular and joint pains, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and depression.

To his horror, Saxena found pcb s in all the 50 soil samples he took - from north, south, east and west Delhi (see graph: Dangerous distribution ). The highest levels were recorded near factories and the amount decreased with distance from the factory (see graph: Concentric concentration ). The highest concentration was in Okhla Industrial Area, measuring 9.62 ppm (9.62 mg of pcb per kg of soil).

In 1987, a young man who had just completed his PhD from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences based in New Delhi came to see me for a job in the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). He said that he was a toxicologist and he was finding it difficult to get employment because there was little demand for toxicologists. Would an environmental NGO like CSE be interested in his services? He showed me his PhD thesis which had revealed high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment of Delhi.

CSE, like most environmental NGOs, and I myself, were quite unaware of pollution issues, especially industrial pollution. I was also reluctant to get into pollution issues without knowing anything about them and, therefore, politely declined the offer.

Ten years later, as my own consciousness about pollution issues began to grow, partly because of the extraordinary increase in air and water pollution that we have so visibly witnessed in the last decade and partly because of the two bouts of cancer I had, which could be related to pesticide exposure, I remembered the young man who had come to see me. He had said that PCBs were high in Delhi’s soils but I had not heard anybody mention anything about this. I did not even remember his name but I thought at least we could track down his PhD study and then locate the young man.

And so began an interesting investigation, leading from one tale of disinterest to another — regardless of its implications for public health.

Anil Agarwal,

Director,Centre for Science and Environment.

Recent tests by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency ( sepa ) has sounded the alarm across Europe. sepa found 9 ppm pcb s in dry soil samples taken near an apartment block in Stockholm. A previous test in Sweden in 1973 had detected 15 g/kg (one-millionth of a gramme per kg) of pcbs in agricultural soil. A maximum of 510 mg/kg pcbs were detected in soil near a factory producing electrical components in Japan in the same year. A survey in Japan in 1976 found that 40 per cent of the soil samples had less than 0.01 g/kg, 24 per cent had 0.01-0.10 g/kg and 21 per cent had 0.11-1.0 g/kg. Only five per cent of the soil samples had pcb levels exceeding 100.1 g/kg.

pcbs can now be found all over the world (see boxes: Choking the north and Rivers of death ). According to who estimates, the consumption of pcbs in various countries through the diet ranges from 0.005 g/kg to 0.2 g/kg. Fish can contain up to 100 g/kg, while the upper limit is 20 g/kg for other foods. Human milk, however, is an exception and may contain 15 to 100 g/kg. The daily intake by infants in various countries ranges from 2 to 12 g/kg, according to who estimates. When these figures are compared to the findings of Saxena, it is obvious that pcbs are present in Delhi's environment and are a threat to public health.

Indifferent strokes

Government agencies had sponsored the study but were not interested in the results

SAXENA’s study was conducted over three years under the supervision of top medical practitioners in obstetrics and gynecology, reproductive biology and forensic medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The additional director of the Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences, Delhi, was one of the guides. The study was funded by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

However, CSE’s reporter Sunita Raina was in for a shock when she reached AIIMS, where she met the head of the department of forensic medicine and toxicology, T D Dogra. Dogra did not want to have anything to do with the study or its results. “Highlighting research findings in press or public is not our job. If an agency finds out, that is another matter,” he said. He took refuge behind the conspicuous absence of other studies on PCBs in India. “To set the threshold of toxicity of PCBs we require standardisation,” he said. When the CSE reporter asked him why follow-up studies were not commissioned, Dogra washed his hands off the whole issue.

The freedom to die

Raina then went over to ICMR, which should have commissioned further studies. Here it seemed as if she had run into a brick wall. Officials were not even aware that the research had been funded by them. Bela Shah, senior deputy directorgeneral at the institution, said emphatically that ICMR does not conduct follow-up studies. “Our immediate concern is to fund one research at a time and to ensure that the money is utilised for the purpose,” she said. “Some projects succeed, some don’t. Follow-up studies are not feasible since then institutes would be flooded with such proposals,” she said defensively. But surely the ICMR could have directed one of its research laboratories to follow up the study? To this Shah replied: “We don’t put up ideas for research because we do not like to restrict a scientist’s freedom.”

The message was clear. Freedom of scientific investigation was more important than human health. The public medical setup was least bothered about public health. Raina next went over to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to find out what the agency had done to detect and control PCB contamination. N K Verma, additional director in the CPCB, said quite distinctly that monitoring and controlling PCBs was not a priority because it was not a “common industry”. “Pollutants are monitored only when you see toxic wastes being discharged into the air or water on a large scale.” Therefore, a poison which is lethal enough in small doses can be allowed to pollute the environment.

The lame excuse trotted out by CPCB officials to hide the obvious lack of concern about PCBs was: “methodology and techniques of testing PCBs need to be standardised”. This incidentally brought to the fore the obvious deficiencies in CPCB. “The existing facilities are outdated,” complained S D Makhijiani, head of infrastructure laboratories at CPCB. “We need sophisticated techniques to detect PCBs,” he lamented. So what was the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) doing all this while? PCBs were recognised as highly poisonous chemicals as far back as 1966, when birds started dying in large numbers off Scandinavian coasts. The world woke up to their effects on humans in the early 1970s. What had the MEF and the ministry of health done to control PCB use and disposal?

Raina went over to the MEF and was appalled: PCBs do not even figure in the list of hazardous chemicals made out by the ministry. Laxmi Raghupati, joint director in the MEF, argued that the list was not meant to be exhaustive. Yet, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) — similar to but less toxic than PCBs — were among the 434 chemicals listed as hazardous.

Playing with poison

Now the CSE reporter was confused. Were the facts being deliberately hidden? PCBs have been used mostly as oil in transformers and capacitors, and in lubricants and paints. What about the transformers that the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking (DESU) and private parties install? DESU has around 2,000 main stations, and many more sub-stations. An enormous number of transformers are installed in these stations and in the city. A DESU official told Raina that spills and leakage from transformers and explosions are very common. “Due to heavy loads, some transformers may explode three times in six months,” said a DESU official.

Sunita Raina then went to the DESU workshop in Okhla Industrial Area. She wanted to see for herself the condition of workers who may be exposed to PCBs in the area — reported by Saxena to have the highest concentration of the toxin in soil samples. Here she was told that when a transformer is replaced, the old one is either discarded or sent for repairs. Amidst the remains of 4,000 defunct transformers lying around in the courtyard at the DESU workshop, Raina saw pools of oil all over the place. Workers were not concerned about the oil, which covered their arms as they worked. Nobody had told them that they were handling poison...


It was still not clear who manufactures PCBs in India and whether they are still being manufactured. The task of finding this out went to CSE toxicologist Amit Nair. Nair went over the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to enquire. At the BIS, he met the assistant director of the electrotechnical department and the director of the petrochemical division, which deal with transformer production. According to the literature available with them, PCBs are not produced in India. The petrochemical division, in fact, had no knowledge of PCBs. The official suggested that Nair check up on the manufacturers of the chemical in the Indian Chemical Catalogue at the BIS library. He found no entry on PCBs from 1970 to 1995. So PCBs and equipment containing the chemicals were being imported in these years. Now that PCBs have been phased out in the West, India no longer imports them.

Next, Nair went over to the Indraprastha Power Plant at ITO and was told by the engineer there that DESU buys transformers mainly from Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL). Other major companies producing transformers were Crompton Greaves, Larsen & Toubro and NGF. Transformers have an average life span of 25 years. All these companies, the official said, produce transformers with latest technology, either dry-type or utilising mineral oils. These transformers are regularly checked and serviced, he was told. The DESU official told Nair that transformers do not explode, since they have a number of built-in safety devices. When vapour is released and comes in contact with charges, an explosive sound is heard. This was confirmed by BHEL officials. So it was established that transformers being imported or manufactured in India today do not use PCBs. But old transformers and other equipment containing PCBs are still installed in places. There is no inspection or inventorying of such equipment. There is no information on sites where waste containing PCBs has been disposed of in the past. In fact, unconcerned officials have managed to put a blanket on all information which could have helped establish the status and extent of PCB contamination in India.

Callous complacence

The problem of PCB contamination needs to be recognised and acted upon

THE indifference of the people the CSE reporter met established one thing. First, that the medical community acts like a closed group — a knowledge mafia — with no interest in sharing its knowledge with the public or the authorities. It showed that the medical research institutions have no interest in analysing the implications of the studies they fund. All talk of justification and proper utilisation of money given out for research was claptrap. These institutions are spending the taxpayers’ money with no interest in what was being funded.

This is echoed in the extreme incompetence of the ministry of health in dealing with emerging health threats resulting from industrialisation. And the MEF and its monitoring arm, the CPCB, are yet to understand the very reason for their While subsequent research was required to set standards and establish regulations regarding PCBs’ use and disposal and their presence in the environment, nobody bothered to conduct follow-up studies.

In a recent international effort, PCBs were put among 12 POPs that are to be restricted or banned from use throughout the world. The list, prepared under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme, is a first step towards an international treaty on POPs, to be finalised in 1998. While global efforts are on to restrict and finally phase out PCBs, in India the scenario remains dismal.

In the absence of such standards and regulations, PCB continue to contaminate the countryside. As the evidence shows, indiscriminate use and disposal is rampant. There is no data as to how much PCB is produced, used and recycled annually in this country. In short, the problem needs, to be recognised. The aim of the government should be to phase out PCBs. Substitutes of PCBs are well known and readily available. Managing PCB wastes is difficult and not merely a question of logistics (see box: Taxing solutions). Moreover, delays can prove costly. Tackling the problem needs commitment. When will Indian scientists and the authorities see light? Where thousands of lives are at stake, can India afford to ignore a persistent problem?

Postscript: On June 13, 1997, five days after CSE toxicologist Amit Nair was told by a DESU official that transformers are safe, a leaking transformer caused an explosion and a fire in a cinema hall in Delhi. The fire left 60 dead. But nobody in India seems to be aware of the slow poisoning that results from the incineration and leakage of PCB-containing insulating oils from transformers.

Sagar Singh with inputs from Amit Nair and Sunita Raina

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