The crippling effects of TCE

tce is a nonflammable, colourless liquid. It is mainly used to remove grease from metal parts. Worldwide almost 80-90 per cent of this chemical is used to degrease metals

Published: Thursday 31 July 2003

-- He served the Indian Army in his heydays. Today he cannot stand straight and can barely walk without a walking stick. Hands, which used to wield artillery, cannot hold a glass of water or button his shirt. D V Singh, a 66-year-old retired army officer, is suffering from central neuro depression. He pronounces trichloroethylene (TCE) guilty for all his ills

Chandra Prakash Varshney, 76 years old, recently suffered a heart attack. He is unable to walk for more than 10 minutes and suffers breathlessness. His survival kit is inhaler and medicines, which cost him Rs 500 per month. Another victim of TCE

A P Sharma, an 80-year-old man, was in coma for three months. His daughter-in-law suffered headaches almost everyday. It reached a point when she had to be taken to Apollo Hospital in New Delhi. The Sharmas also blame TCE for their ailments.

There are many more in Mitra Nagar in Aligarh, whose lives have been ruined by tce. The chemical is used as cleansing agent by the city's lock and brass industry. The industry is a big revenue generator -- it fetches the state Rs 600 crores every year. And now it is playing havoc with the health of Aligarh's citizens. The government acknowledges the health hazards of tce, but wants more evidence.
TCE's use tce is a nonflammable, colourless liquid. It is mainly used to remove grease from metal parts. Worldwide almost 80-90 per cent of this chemical is used to degrease metals. "Before brass products go for final polishing, they are dipped in tce to remove stains," informs Y K Singh, general manager, District Industries Centre (dic), Aligarh. Singh acknowledges that tce is hazardous and that its use should be monitored.

tce is listed as a hazardous chemical, at serial number 644, under the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, notified by the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). According to estimates of the Aligarh office of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (uppcb), there are at least 125 units using this chemical in Aligarh. And this is a conservative estimate as most of these industries are located in residential areas and have never been surveyed. Although all these units are supposed to install pollution control equipments, hardly a few of them have done so. And those who have rarely operate them.
Abuse More and more international studies are exposing hazardous aspects of tce's use. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as "probably carcinogenic" to humans. According to the Maryland-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (niosh), " tce is absorbed readily from the gastrointestinal tract, leading to respiratory failure or cardiac arrest causing death." Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, Inc, based in Washington, the us, claims that "acute (short term) overexposure to tce vapour can cause central nervous system effects... which may lead to unconsciousness or prove fatal in extreme circumstances. Also at very high exposure levels, tce can ... lead to sudden cardiac arrest ... (it) may irritate the respiratory tract at high vapour concentrations. Repeated or lengthy contact with the chemical in liquid form can cause irritation of the skin and eyes. Chronic (repeated) overexposure ... has been associated with damage to the liver and kidney..." Similar results have also been found by Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Department of Health and Family Services, Wisconsin. According to niosh, tce when inhaled by pregnant women diffuses rapidly across the placenta. Other studies indicate that pregnant women who drink tce-laced water might give birth to babies with birth defects.

On the basis of precautionary principle, many industrialised countries are regulating tce use. The United States Environment Protection Agency has set a maximum contaminant level of five microgrammes per litre of tce in drinking water. The us Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set an exposure limit of 50 parts per million for an eight hour workday. Informs Nityananad Jayaraman of the Chennai Forum of Corporate Accountability and Environmental Health, "The European Court of Justice has upheld the Swedish ban on tce in the interests of human health. "

Real side-effects
The Indian government still awaits scientific evidence. The sufferings of Mitra Nagar's residents cuts no ice with it.

Take the case of Singh. The ex-army major, along with his wife, shifted to Mitra Nagar in early-1990s. Things were fine till a brass unit -- Vestal Manufacturers and Traders -- came to their neighbourhood sometime in the mid-1990s. "And then my health started deteriorating. It reached a stage where I could not coordinate my movements," says Singh. His wife, Raj Singh, who was recently operated for cancer, says that chemicals from the factory used to flow freely in the drains and the stench was unbearable. According to her, industries have become more careful now. Rather than using open drains, they now dump chemicals via bores deep underground!

Singh is lucky that he has a wife to take care of him. Chandra Prakash Varshney is struggling alone. He suffered a massive heart attack a few years back. "I have been living here for more than 12 years. But my health started to deteriorate only after this brass unit shifted to the backside of my house. I have stopped going that side and keep all my windows closed lest noxious fumes enter my house," says Varshney. He has planted trees in his compound. But those in his backyard have wilted.

Then there is case of the Sharmas, who faced the maximum wrath of the brass unit, as the factory's exhaust happened to be towards their house. Narrates Rajesh Kumar Sharma, "The emissions from the unit were so noxious that our white shirts had black spots all over them." Rajesh's father was in coma for almost three months. His sister-in-law had to be taken to Apollo Hospital in Delhi for treatment for constant headaches. Rajesh blames tce emissions from the factory for all their woes.

These residents claim to have contacted almost all concerned government officials, but no one seems to be bothered. On September 7, 2002 Vestal Manufacturers and Traders was issued a closure order by uppcb, not on grounds of pollution, but public nuisance. The unit however continued to operate till recently, when it shifted to Shakti Nagar, another residential colony.

Vinod Garg, owner of Vestal Manufacturers and Traders, denies all allegations. "All complaints of pollution and health problems are motivated. I have not received any order from uppcb and have shifted to a new area because my business has expanded and I want more space." According to him, both the central and the state level pollution control boards have given him a clean chit. Laments B D Singh, a former scientist who initiated the agitation, "Industrialists are very powerful and no government officer has guts to shut down these polluting units."

Insensitive government
Uttar Pradesh government officials claim it is almost impossible to shut down industries, operating in residential areas, that use tce. "Some units using tce are located in small bylanes of the city and we need to conduct a survey of these areas to ascertain the extent of problem," says Y K Singh. S M Bhobhade, Aligarh's district magistrate accepts that tce's use in residential colonies is hazardous. But, he feels any forcible shifting of industries will cause law and order problem in the city.

As a stopgap solution, dic is encouraging the use of chilling plants to control release of tce vapours. Explains Rajeev Upadhyay, regional officer, uppcb, "Chilling units have a chamber which maintains a temperature of eight degrees Celsius. The purpose of such cooling is to condense tce vapours, which might otherwise come out in the environment." But he admits that many units do not maintain the required temperature and release tce into the environment. This was confirmed when the Down To Earth correspondent visited an industry which had a chilling plant but was not used. The owner claimed that workers found it inconvenient to run the chilling plant. "Chilling plants have additional costs, so many industrialists do not purchase them. Those who have such a plant, do not operate it and continue to use tce at ambient temperature," admits Bhobade.

Outside Uttar Pradesh, no one seems to be worried about tce. Senior officials at moef admit the chemical is hazardous, but the ministry has not bothered to study the problem. The Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) has also washed its hands off it. "We have not studied health effects of exposure to tce, as at present we are working on pollutants of more hazardous nature such as benzene," says a senior scientist with cpcb.

Amita Srivastava, a scientist with the National Poison Information Centre at New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences, says that "unless a doctor checks the 'patients' in Aligarh and scientists simultaneously monitor tce levels in the air, it is very difficult pinpoint the culprit." But she also adds that since inhalation and ingestion of tce causes headaches and central neural depression, it is possible that this chemical is responsible for the ill health of Aligarh's residents.

And irresponsible industrialists
Industrialists are stubbornly unwilling to give up tce. "Sometimes industries use petrol to clean brass products, but that does not give the desired finishing. Also alternatives are expensive", says Garg. Counters Jayaraman, "People who are spending lakhs of rupees on treating their cancers and various other ailments caused by tce will certainly find alternatives cost-effective. Unfortunately, the health effects on workers and communities due to use of poisonous chemicals are not accounted for in the cost-benefit analyses of the industry and the government. " He says that although the Supreme Court of India has reaffirmed the importance of the precautionary principle, the Indian regulators and policy makers -- including the cpcb and the moef-- have always insisted on smoking guns and body bags before considering any action on hazardous chemicals. And people become victims of this inaction.

With inputs from Neha Dua in Delhi

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