Saturday, August 29, 2009

India Loses A Generation of Children to Uranium Waste

The children of some states in India are paying the price for India’s need for energy. Health care workers in the Punjabi cities of Bathinda and Faridkot knew there was a problem when they saw a sharp increase in the number of birth defects; physical and mental abnormalities; and, cancers. The suspicion was that the children were being slowly poisoned.

The problems include; but, are not limited to: heads that are either too large or too small; limbs that are either too short or too bent; some brains never grew; others can’t speak; some sit mutely staring into space locked away in their own minds; other cry out and rock backwards and forwards; and, many seem doomed to an early death. As a mother, I cannot even imagine the anguish the parents feel as they watch their children’s health deteriorate every year. Even more soul destroy would be my inability to do anything for them.

It wasn’t until a visiting scientist arranged for tests to be done at a German laboratory that the real depth of the nightmare was revealed. The test results were undeniable – the children had massive levels of uranium in the bodies. One child had more than 60 times the maximum safe level. Uranium occurs naturally worldwide; but, is normally only present in levels that pose no health risk to humans. There is no obvious source for these high levels of contamination; so, how are these children being exposed to this toxic substance?

Turns out the Indian authorities are deliberately withholding information about the cause of these health disasters. Staff at the clinics say they were visited and threatened with closure if they spoke out. The South African scientist whose curiosity exposed the scandal says she has been warned by the authorities that she may not be allowed back into the country. However, an Observer investigation has discovered evidence that suggests a link between the contamination and the region’s coal-fired power stations.

It is well known that burning coal produces fine fly ash that contains concentrated levels of uranium. Russia’s leading nuclear research institute released a new report warning of an increased radiation hazard to people living near coal-fired thermal power stations.

Test results for children born and living in areas around the Punjab state’s power station already show a high level of uranium in their cells. Now test results on the ground water shows levels of uranium up to 15 times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) maximum safe levels. The tests further show the pollution extends across large parts of the state – home to 24 million people.

Gurpreet Singh, 7, who has cerebral palsy and microcephaly, and is from Sirsar, 50km from the Punjabi town of Bathinda. He is being treated at the Baba Farid centre for Special Children in Bathinda Photograph: Gethin Chamberlain

The victims are being treated at the Baba Farid centres for special children in Bathinda – where there are two coal-fired thermal plants – and in nearby Faridkot. It was staff at those clinics who first voiced concerns about the increasing numbers of admissions involving severely handicapped children several of whom have already passed on.

Dr Pritpal Singh, who runs the Faridkot clinic, said that while the number of affected children has increased dramatically over the last 6 or 7 years, the Indian authorities are actively trying to bury the scandal.

"They can't just detoxify these kids; they have to detoxify the whole Punjab. That is the reason for their reluctance," he said. "They threatened us and said if we didn't stop commenting on what's happening, they would close our clinic. But I decided that if I kept silent it would go on for years and no one would do anything about it. If I keep silent then the next day it will be my child. The children are dying in front of me."

Dr Carin Smit, the South African clinical metal toxicologist who arranged for the tests to be carried out in Germany, said that the situation could no longer be ignored. "There is evidence of harm for these children in my care and... it is an imperative that their bodies be cleaned up and their metabolisms be supported to deal with such a devastating presence of radioactive material," she explained.

"If the contamination is as widespread as it would appear to be – as far west as Muktsar on the Pakistani border, and as far east as the foothills of Himachal Pradesh – then millions are at high risk and every new baby born to a contaminated mother is at risk."

"The government should investigate it because if our child is affected it will also affect future generations," he said. "What are they waiting for? How many children do they want to be affected? Another generation? I can leave the house for work, but my wife is always with him. Sometimes she cries and asks why God is playing with our luck. Every morning he sends a new trouble."

India's reluctance to acknowledge the problem is hardly unexpected: the country is heavily committed to an expansion of thermal plants in Punjab and other states. To no one’s amazement, scientists from the Department of Atomic Energy concluded that while the uranium concentration was “slightly high” there was “nothing to worry” about. Has anyone ever seen these people actually drink this water to prove the accuracy of their claims?

Some tests recorded level of uranium the ground water as high as 224mcg/l (micrograms per litre) – 15 times higher than the safe level set by WHO. While WHO sets the safe level at 15mcg/l; my American friends might be interested to know that the US Environmental Protection Agency sets their maximum safe level as 20mcg/l. I’d rather go with WHO personally.

Meanwhile, smoke continues to pour from the power station chimneys and lorries shuttle backwards and forwards, taking away the fly ash to be mixed into cement at the neighbouring Ambuja factory. Inside the plant last week, there was ash everywhere, forming drifts, clinging to the skin, getting into the throat.

Ravindra Singh, the plant's security officer, said that most of the ash went to the cement works, while the rest was dumped in ash ponds. Every day the plant burns 6,000 tons of coal; and, while Singh says he no idea how much ash this produces – he does admit the lorries needed it to take it to the factory is continuous.

Tests on ground water in villages in Bathinda district found the highest average concentration of uranium – 56.95mcg/l – in the town of Bucho Mandi, a short distance from the Lehra Mohabat ash pond. Exposure to this high level of uranium means that everyone in the village is at a risk 135 times greater than that of the average population.

Tests on ground water in the village of Jai Singh Wala, close to the Bathinda ash pond, showed an average level of 52.79mcg/l. People living there said they used the ash to spread on the roads and even on the floors of their homes.

Punjabi scientists knowledgeable in the effects of uranium in the state have dismissed the government denials as a whitewash. "If the government says there is a high level of uranium in an area that would create havoc – they don't want to openly say something like that," said Dr Chander Parkash, a wetland ecologist working at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

Another scientist, Dr GS Dhillon, a former chief engineer with the irrigation department, accuses the authorities of failing to control the ash ponds which he believes have contaminated the ground water.

A previous report in the magazine Scientific American, citing various sources, claimed that fly ash emitted by power plants "carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy", adding: "When coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels."

India is already a beleaguered country which will probably be unable to properly care for these children and those that follow if they don’t stop using these coal-powered power stations. Unfortunately, instead of dealing with the problem, India has plans to install more coal-powered power stations.


kathi said...

Heartbreaking... since some of the symptoms the children exhibit sound like Autism, it makes me wonder if any study has been done in the States showing what areas have greatest incidence of Autism, specifically if there is greater incidence in areas with coal plants.

Pippa said...

Thought provoking comment!! Thanks, K.