Deadly omission

The chemical that caused 400 schoolchildren in Delhi to be hospitalised is not considered hazardous by the government

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Monday 12 June 2017
The Tughlakabad container
depot, where 2-chloro-5
(chloromethyl) pyridine leaked
on May 6, is surrounded by
residential areas and schools (Photographs: Bhaskarjyoti Goswami)
The Tughlakabad container
depot, where 2-chloro-5
(chloromethyl) pyridine leaked
on May 6, is surrounded by
residential areas and schools (Photographs: Bhaskarjyoti Goswami) The Tughlakabad container depot, where 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine leaked on May 6, is surrounded by residential areas and schools (Photographs: Bhaskarjyoti Goswami)

A day after India opposed the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance at the Rotterdam Convention on May 5, a chemical leak at the Tughlakabad Inland Container Depot (ICD) in South Delhi led to the hospitalisation of more than 400 people living in its vicinity who complained of burning eyes and dizziness. Most of them were children from a nearby school.

While the leaked chemical, 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine, and chrysotile asbestos are very different, they have one similarity—both are categorised hazardous by the UN’s International Maritime Dange rous Goods Code. The Material Safety Data Sheet, an internationally recognised docu ment carried along with the chemical during transportation, states that 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine is “extremely destructive to the tissue of the mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract”, and may be harmful if inhaled or swallowed and can cause burns upon coming in contact with the skin. The data sheet thus details the measures for safe handling of the chemical.

But it seems neither the ICD authorities nor officials of the Crystal Crop Protection Pvt Ltd, a Delhi-based agrochemicals com pany that had bought the chemical for its unit in Sonipat, Haryana, had regard for the safe handling measures. The cracked contai ner spilt the chemical onto the road as it was being loaded for transportation at ICD. Soon the fumes enveloped the area.

While the accident has prompted the Delhi government to issue show cause notice to the Customs Department and ICD authorities, the fact is 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine does not figure in the list of hazardous chemicals that are regulated under various laws in the country. These include the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. The rules, amended in 2000, regulate the import of 684 chemicals. An inventory of hazardous chemicals created by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2008, too, does not mention it. When Down To Earth (DTE) asked Bishwanath Sinha, joint secretary of Hazardous Substances Management Division of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), why the chemical is not considered hazardous in India, he said,“This (Tughlakabad chemical leak) incident calls for a new regulatory regime to handle 2-chloro- 5 (chloromethyl) pyridine. It’ll happen with time.”

A hazardous attitude

The accident has, however, triggered a blame game between MoEFCC, responsible for notifying hazardous chemicals from time to time, and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, whose Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) oversees the import of notified chemicals to the country. While Sinha says DGFT is responsible for the unac counted entry of the chemical into the country, DGFT’s joint secretary S P Roy told DTE that he did not even know about the chemical before the chemical leak acci dent. But he elaborated on the process of importing chemicals: “If an item is restricted, DGFT grants the import permission based on the comments from MOEFCC.”

Since the chemical is not notified, there is no government data on its usage, manufacture, or worse, import. However, a highly placed source told DTE that the chemical is not produced anywhere in the country and all our requirements are met by imports. The chemical is a major ingredient in manufacturing imidacloprid, a registered insecticide by the Central Insecticide Board, used to control sucking insects, termites, soil insects and fleas on pets.

pyridine can be
harmful if inhaled or
swallowed and can
cause burns upon
coming in contact
with the skin

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry, however, does provide the figures for the import of “derivatives of pyridine”, a broader category of chemicals that includes 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine. As per this data, India imported R73.9 crore worth of derivatives of pyridine during April-September 2016. Most of it was imported from China followed by the US and Japan. How much of it was 2-chloro-5 (chloromethyl) pyridine is anyone’s guess. But what is evident is that the chemical is imported.

The casual approach of the government towards hazardous chemicals does not end here. “Though the import of hazardous chemicals increased fourfold between 2004 and 2008, the government failed to update the list,” says I G Kapila, the amicus curiae in the Tughlakabad gas leak accident case being heard by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). After taking took suo motu cogniza nce of the accident, NGT has ordered inspec tion of the ICD and the industrial unit of Crystal Crop Protection Pvt Ltd in Sonipat.

Hollow claims

The accident also highlights the hollowness of India’s claim at the Rotterdam Conven tion, where it opposed the UN accord to stop the flow of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries. India claimed that it allows imports of hazardous waste under careful conditions and is equipped to handle such chemicals. “Listing a chemical under the Rotterdam Convention only means that the country importing the chemical can seek all the information about it from the exporting country.

It makes a country better prepared for the use and handling of the chemical,” explains Satish Sinha of Delhi non-profit Toxic Link. “But how is a country that has not even notified hazardous chemicals prepared to import them?” he asks. He points out another lacuna in the system. “We see everything from the industry’s perspe ctive, not through the lens of human and environmental safety. Had this chemical been listed, we would have all the informa tion about it. There would have been some safety mark on its box.”

Gopal Krishna of Toxic Watch Alliance, a Delhi-based research organisation, says the problem cannot be addressed until India creates an inventory of chemicals being used in the country. The victims of the leak are probably unaware of how the government’s apathy could have proved lethal for them. Unless necessary legislative steps are taken, they might not be so lucky next time.

This article was originally publshed in the Jun1-15 issue of Down To Earth magazine 

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