Living on the edge

Local pollution linked to birth defects

Published: Tuesday 15 July 2003

the location of your house plays a crucial role in determining your newborn's health. A recently published study links living close to an incinerator with the chances of a newborn suffering from spina bifida (spinal cord malformation) and heart defects. On the other hand, close proximity to a crematorium was found to increase the risk of stillbirths, anencephalus (brain damage) and other birth defects. The 35-year long study, Adverse pregnancy outcomes around incinerators and crematoriums in Cumbria, northwest England, 1956-93, was conducted by the University of Newcastle, the uk.

Both incinerators and crematoriums spew out toxic chemicals. A major pollutant from crematoriums is mercury, whereas emissions from incinerators contain dioxins, furans, particulates, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. Exposure to these can be via inhalation, or through food, soil and water. According to the study, there is a greater likelihood of lethal congenital abnormalities if the mother lives at a distance of 0.5 kilometre (km) from the incinerator as against the distance of three kms. Similarly there are 1.23 times more chances of the newborn suffering from anencephalus if his/her mother is staying close (0.5 km) to a crematorium rather than living three kms away.

A 2001 study conducted in Belgium also found high levels of dioxins, lead and cadmium in the blood of children living near incinerators. Another study recorded very high levels of dioxins -- 53.4 parts per trillion total toxic equivalency for lipid of dioxin -- in the blood of residents living near an incinerator in Pyongtaek, Seoul.

The situation in India would be no better, but epidemiological studies are not conducted on the pretext of the high costs involved. Most of the country's incinerators are low-grade and there is no monitoring of their pollutants like dioxins. A study conducted in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat in October 2002 by an international coalition called Health Care Without Harm found glaring loopholes in the functioning of De Montfort incinerators that are commonly used in the country because they are quite cheap.

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