Baby bottles and bisphenol A, pesticides and obesity – A ‘new’ matter of concern?

The rusty Union Carbide plant in Bhopal which was the site of a massive toxic gas leak (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I start this post with a question – Are toxicants present in the environment a cause of concern for us today? It is definitely not making headlines in the nation’s leading newspapers nor is it causing a drastic effect to cause death.  So, do we even care? Well, as Paracelsus, a German-Swiss physician and alchemist had quoted- “All substances are poisonous. There is none that is not a poison and it is the dose that differentiates a poison from a remedy”.  This means that toxicants are pervasive and there is no way we can escape them but these days the chance that we get exposed to them has increased tremendously.  Here is how: We complain about pollution in cities and drive an air-conditioned vehicle to work to avoid breathing the carbon monoxide and diesel particulates. These are air pollutants whose amounts have escalated given the industrialization in our cities and towns. We drink bottled water fearing lead and other heavy metals that could potentially be present in our water and furthermore forget to recycle that plastic bottle.  With the lure of ‘instant meals’ we microwave in plastic containers ignoring the effects some of the toxicants in the plastic can have on us. Furthermore, we disregard the fact that all these daily activities have contributed towards not only polluting the air we breathe, water we drink, land we use but also affecting the human body which we have learned to care less about. The effect of environmental toxicants is only evident when hundreds of thousands of people get exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other toxicants in a blast caused at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Twenty nine years have passed since this event occurred but the areas surrounding the Union Carbide plant are still deemed to be highly toxic and families live in threat of developing growth related disorders. Little has been done ever since this event occurred to increase awareness among the general public about the health effects of environmental toxicants.

Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

Our fast-paced lives have made us a victim of environmental diseases. In fact, scientists are garnering evidence to show that dietary, pharmaceutical and industrial compounds may alter metabolic processes and in turn lead to cardiovascular disease and obesity.  Recent research suggests that direct long-term health effects are caused from exposure to various environmental toxicants. Bisphenol A– a toxicant present in most plastics has recently caught attention of US-Environmental protection agency as it is shown to disrupt the endocrine system. The effects are not only be seen in the current generation that is exposed to the toxicant but ‘trans-generational’ effects permeable to the next  several generations  have been noted in laboratory animal models. Pthalates which are used as plasticizers are found in plastic toys and even the enteric coating of pills and these have been shown to cause birth defects in animals and are being phased out of many products in the west.   The recent Deepwater horizon oil spill caused by BP in the Gulf of Mexico has created extensive damage and affected tons of wildlife and contaminated ground water. Of particular relevance to India are concerns about the widespread use of the pesticide Endosulfan in the state of Kerala. Groundwater contamination with a heavy metal Arsenic in West Bengal has led to increasing amounts of Arsenic in rice which is a staple for a majority of the population living in that area. Heavy metals such as Lead, benzo[a]pyrene and fine particulate matter such as that in cigarette smoke can cause lung inflammation and chronic illnesses. Dioxins too are pervasive in the environment owing to effluents from industries and laxed environmental regulation about proper disposal of waste. Industrial chemicals such as perfluoroctanoic acid, a surfactant used in production of non-stick cookware is a potential endocrine disruptor and risk factor for human health. The list of hazardous environmental toxicants is endless and the effects are less explored. It is in our ‘health’ interest to be aware of these environmental pollutants and take requisite efforts to decrease occupational and general exposure. Education and awareness about the toxic nature of some of these contaminants has to be brought to the attention of the common man, the industrial workers and even the policy makers! This will require co-operation on several fronts. Scientists will need to communicate research in a non-scientific language to policy makers (who may be power-hungry politicians), NGOs and private industries (with environment-thrust) in India. This idea may appear far-fetched but if started today may well be  a small stepping stone towards a larger benefit.

So, through the next series of posts I will be exploring several major environmental toxicants in detail.  Being in a field of environmental toxicology, I plan to emphasize on the toxic effects and the potential health effects through a scientific perspective. There is a lot of exaggeration and simultaneously a grave concern about several toxicants whose effects have still not been explored in-depth.  It is important that we are aware of the research that is being conducted and be critical about accepting what media has to say about environmental toxicants and pollutants.

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India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 2

Part 1 of this three-part series (Read Part 3 here) dealt with the traditional sources of energy – Coal, Oil, Natural gas, Hydroelectric and Nuclear. In this part, I will review three other sources – Solar energy, Wind energy and Biomass. Of these, Solar and Wind technologies are just rising while biomass, as an energy source, has been used for centuries by people. While burning biomass leads to carbon pollution, it is still the most popular source of energy in India. Its local use and possibility to develop clean energy from it may make it an attractive source of energy.

 

Solar resource map of India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solar energy:

The numbers associated with solar energy are mind-boggling. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will EVER be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. India receives 600 terawatts of energy every year and states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are superbly positioned to harvest this energy. Given we have most of energy coming from coal and other dirty fuels today and given most of India experiences frequent load-shedding, solar power would be a boon for a country like India.

So whats holding us back? Turns out that solar panels are expensive. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal costs 7 cents/watt while solar energy costs 22 cents/watt. In a country like India where 40% of the population lives below $1 a day, it is difficult to justify such expense. However, in recent years, the costs for solar panels have dropped significantly due to a ramp in production by China and the US. Several companies in India – Reliance, Adani, Moser Baer, Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra etc. – are getting into the solar business. The government has pledged to invest $19 billion in solar power through 2020 through the National Solar Mission. All of these choices literally make the future for solar power bright in India.

Small wind turbines and solar panels on lamp posts in Shanghai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wind energy:
In 2011, India had an installed capacity of ~16000 MW of wind power, which is a minuscule 1.6% of the total power generated. It is estimated that the total power that can be generated through wind energy is ~65000 MW. Wind energy is abundant in India, however, it is hardly tapped. As compared to India, China, which is the world’s leader in wind production, produced 62,000 MW, of which almost all of the capacity was installed in the last five years. As compared to that, since 2005, India has added only ~10,000 MW of wind capacity.

One reason why China raced ahead in the wind game is because the wind turbines are manufactured in China at extremely low costs and are shipped to other countries at a profit. However, the policy paralysis in India and lack of incentives to clean, renewable power generation has significantly stunted the Indian wind industry. For example, Suzlon, a wind-turbine manufacturing Indian company is facing economic woes due to competition by China. Also, in 2008, wind power in India cost Rs. 3.5/kWh as compared to Rs 1.5/kWh for coal, thus making it almost twice as expensive.

However, with enough government interest, more efficient turbine designs and cheaper manufacturing, India can indeed move to harness wind power in a greater way than so far. A prime example in this case is Tamil Nadu, which has made enormous progress in tapping its wind energy potential. At certain times of the year, up to 40% of the power grid is fed by its massive wind farms. This proportion is next only to Denmark, the world leader in wind energy.

 

Biomass:

Biomass use is not considered “installed capacity” because most of the biomass use occurs in villages and on a very local scale. People burning leaves and wood for heat, using cowdung-cakes for cooking, biogas for energy are all examples of how biomass is used in India. By some estimates, almost a third of the energy in India comes from biomass (56% of biomass-energy comes from wood). The biggest advantages of biomass are its cost – its almost always made from natural waste – and its local generation, which gives the power to control it in the hands of the people.

Both of these issues are also what make biomass unattractive in its current form. Since biomass is largely carbon, burning it releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Also, since the production is not regulated, the process is highly inefficient, and a lot of biomass in the fuel is left underutilized. Finally, biomass use in ecologically threatened areas can lead to wildfires or environmental degradation.

Current challenges, however, call for a redrafting of the biomass-energy strategy. Biogas plants, for example, are an attractive source of local and community energy. The biggest biogas plant in India is in the Patan area of Gujarat. The plant is continually fed by cowdung of the large number of cows in the nearby villages. Large biogas plants are also being set up in Haryana and other states, however, a significant interest by the Central Government is needed in this area.

Another source of biomass-energy thats piquing interest worldwide is biofuels. Plants like corn, switchgrass, jatropha etc. as well as unicellular fatty-acid producing algae are being actively researched for biofuel production. Research on biofuels is abysmally low in India. These fuels can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as help us reduce our carbon footprint.

http://youtu.be/BGSl72xZHNk

The final part of these three part series will try to synthesize the two parts of this short-essay and will try to build a coherent picture of the energy policy in India.  Stay tuned!

 

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India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 1

A solar panel array (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Several odes have been written about the Gujarat Solar Park. With its capacity to produce ~1000 Megawatts (MW) of clean, pure energy when finished in 2013, it will partially satisfy an energy-hungry country. Although it will satisfy only a small fraction of the total energy requirement of the country, the National Solar Mission aims to create 20GW of solar energy by 2020 – which will be almost 10% of the installed capacity. However, India is expected to ramp up its energy production to 1000GW by 2050 if it is to satisfy its economy. To provide electricity access to its entire population, an investment of $135 billion is needed in the energy sector, according to International Energy Agency estimates.

How can we increase the production of electricity in India without polluting the already polluted environment and destroying the already fragile ecosystems?  This is an important question in front of the Indian nation today. I decided to do a quick survey of various available methods and their impact on environment. There may be more points to talk about…I have only included ones that I thought were the biggest concerns.

In this part, I talk about the traditional methods of producing energy (primarily electricity) – Coal, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Oil and Nuclear Energy. In Part 2, I will talk about the alternative popular sources – Wind, Solar and Biomass. I’m omitting other sources like Tidal energy and Geothermal energy because their contribution to energy production in India (and around the world) is minimal.

This is, by no means, an expert or a comprehensive review. I encourage readers and experts to comment, point out errors if any and provide their own insights!

Technology

Advantages Impacts/Issues

Comments

Coal Coal is cheap. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world. 53% of India’s energy requirements are met by coal today. Carbon Capture and Storage (Clean coal/CCS) is being touted as the solution to coal’s polluting nature. There are doubts regarding India’s coal reserves. Most of the coal-reserves are in Maoist affected areas or in national parks/national forests. Coal mining destroys mountains, rivers, groundwater and other habitats. Coal is a dirty fuel and is responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted today. Coal use is being phased out in developed nations, but developing nations are still largely dependent on it. Also, CCS technologies are still not economically viable for global application.
Hydroelectric India is a land of rivers. Hydroelectricity accounts for 22% of electricity generation today, producing about 38GW. There is capacity of ~90GW possible. Dammed water can also be used for irrigation. No GHG emisisons. Building dams submerges land, displaces people and all the living fauna of the land. Dams cause an obstruction in free flow of water, thus fragmenting habitats of animals like Gangetic Dolphins. Hydroelectric power should be used but with caution. Proper environmental assessment needs to be done to ensure that endangered species are not being lost. People displaced should be properly rehabilitated.
Natural gas 11% of our energy comes from NG. India has huge reserves of natural gas – mainly off Mumbai/Gujarat coast (Bombay High) and now in Krishna-Godavari basin in AP. NG is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal and oil – NG plants produce less than half the CO2 emissions as compared to coal and oil fired plants. Natural gas extraction requires boring inside either sea or land. This affects natural habitats of many species and can lead to water and soil pollution and land erosion. NG production does produce methane, but to a lower extent than other fossil fuels. A recent process called fracking allows more extraction of NG from soil. However, it has been severely criticized to contaminate groundwater. In India where droughts are rampant, groundwater contamination is not acceptable.
Oil Oil is primarily used for transportation/agriculture/industrial purposes and not for power generation. However, increased load-shedding is making industries and households to use diesel run generators. Oil and coal have been the primary energy source for much of the 20th century. Extraction processes are well-standardized and large investments have been made. Enough has been already written about the dirty nature of oil combustion – in cars or in generators. Fossil fuel burning causes release of GHG, environmental pollutants and soot that are detrimental to individual and community health. India’s oil reserves are meager and we’re in competition with China, USA and European nations for the same oil fields. This is a geopolitical challenge. It is no new knowledge that weeding the country off oil is an immediate priority. However, as GDP rises, more cars get on the roads. Given India’s poor infrastructure and lax pollution control measures, there is ample “encouragement” given to vehicular pollution.
Nuclear Around 5000 MW (2.5%) of today’s electricity output is from nuclear power. Govt. has plans to increase this to 32,000 MW by 2030. Nuclear power doesnt emit GHG and has been reliably used worldwide for the past 40-50 years. Emission of nuclear radiation causes genetic defects which can last for generations. Chernobyl and Fukushima are prime examples. Waste generated after energy production is also radioactive and hazardous. Disposal of this waste is difficult and is a contentious issue. Uranium reserves in India are meagre. Sanctions, such as after the Pokhran blasts, can impact supply of fuel and can shut down plants. Nuclear companies say that disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima occurred because of old technology. New methods are significantly safer. Govt. has opened up the nuclear market in India but there has been a big debate about who’s liable if an accident occurs.

It has now become crystal clear that India cannot afford to meet its energy requirements the way its been doing for the past 60 years. We do need a higher proportion of our energy from renewables and the Gujarat Solar Park is a glorious example of how we can make it work. The next part will take a look at the emerging clean technologies – Solar Power and Wind Power – and the traditionally used fuel source in India – Biomass – along with the development of Biofuels.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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Bhils of Central India and the mythical story of why they cannot farm

Bhil children from MP (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

This is a mythological story of the Bhil tribe that is settled in parts of Central India, primarily in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra,and Rajasthan. The Bhils live in a highly arid and drought-prone part of India. Thus, farming cannot be their primary occupation. Traditionally, they have been hunter-gatherers and engage in animal husbandry. The Bhils are quite economically backward. I found this story interesting because it is being passed on through generations in the Bhil community, the elders explaining to the new generation why they are so poor and why they cannot engage in farming. This story also illustrates the importance of animals, especially domesticated animals, in helping tribal people achieve prosperity.

As the story goes, once Parvati and Lord Shiva were sitting in their abode in the Himalayas having a discussion about the mortal world. Suddenly, Parvati realized that her brothers were coming  to meet her. Parvati greeted her brothers with great joy and spent some time chatting with them. When the time for them to leave came, she asked Lord Shiva to give them a parting gift. Lord Shiva said, “I’m just an Aghori Sadhu! I dont have any material possession to give as gift to your brothers. I’m sorry”. Hearing this, the brothers felt sad and left. But Parvati insisted and Lord Shiva, unknown to the brothers, placed a silver pot in their way. But the brothers failed to notice the pot and walked away.

Parvati felt sad. She thought, “If my brothers failed to notice a gift from God, how will they achieve any success in their life?”. She went to Lord Shiva again and asked him to give her brothers a valuable gift that can help them learn and achieve success. Lord Shiva said, “Alright! I will give your brothers my precious bull (Nandi).”

Nandi Bull (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

Parvati was happy. She said to her brothers, “Oh my dear brothers! Take good care of this bull and you will become rich and prosperous.” The brothers were very happy and took the bull to their home.

However, after reaching home, the brothers started to get very impatient. They thought that since Parvati asked them to take care of Nandi, there must be something valuable in it. One of them suggested that they kill the bull and see if there’s any treasure inside. Another brother resisted but in the end, all of them became greedy and agreed to kill the bull.

When Parvati heard that Nandi had been killed by her brothers, she grew very angry. She confronted them and said, “You fools! Nandi was the most powerful and the most sacred bull in all the three worlds. You could have used him for tilling your barren land and for farming, however, you gave up this opportunity and instead killed him.” So she cursed her brothers – who belonged to the Bhil community – and their descendants that they will never be able to farm again. And so the story goes for why the Bhils do not (cannot) farm on their lands.

Such stories also pass on an important lesson of respect towards the natural world to the younger generation.

PS: On a lighter note, a little bit of irrigation and proper groundwater management practices may help some bit in lifting Parvati’s curse 🙂

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Education for the masses

According the 2011 Census, India’s population is 1.2 billion – one sixth of the world’s humanity. By 2050, India’s population will be 1.6 billion, surpassing that of China. Keeping these 1.6 billion people happy is a monumental challenge. If the unemployment rate in 2050 remains the same as today – at 10% – there will be 160 million unemployed people in India. That is more than the current population of Russia! To satisfy this ocean of humanity, India will have to not only create jobs in current sectors of the economy but also create new sectors, allow for development and propagation of new ideas and create social change that trickles down to the bottom of the pyramid. Now, people can throw in all sort of indices, talk about the rising GDP of India and increasing market capitalization to suggest that India is progressing. But all of this is unsustainable if the society becomes chaotic. The big question before the country is – how do we maintain peace and stability in the country 50 years from now?

Educating the adult population

The most fundamental solution to this conundrum is education for the masses. Successive governments in India have recognized this problem and that is why we have a National Literacy Mission and Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan in place since 1988 and 2001 respectively. The Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan is targeted towards primary education (6-14 age group) and intends to get the ~200 million children in India to go to some sort of a school. The aim of the NLM program is to impart functional literacy to all non-literate persons in 15-35 age group, where “functional literacy” is a key word. Functional literacy means being able to read, write and calculate and being aware of the civic society around. With this definition and through these initiatives, functional literacy in India has reached up to 74% – 65% for females and 82% for males – from 12% in 1947. NLM claims that 120 million people have been made literate since the program started. Innovative concepts like Ekal Vidyalayhave also contributed to children going to schools, especially in rural parts of India.

However, the question is, are these efforts sufficient? Despite spectacular progresses, India still has the largest population of illiterates in the world. Estimates suggest that the rate of growth of literacy is sluggish and that if the same rate continues, India will take another half a century to be fully functionally literate. Again, remember that all these statistics talk only about functional literacy. In a survey of 16,000 villages, an NGO found that 60% of the school going children were unable to perform simple division. The dropout rates even in primary school are high – around 20%. were Despite obtaining school-level education, studies indicate that more than 80% of the children do not go on to attend college. Of those that attend college, over 70% are unemployable. It is no surprise that Indian students perform poorly in nearly all international indicators of education quality.

In a few decades, the competition for resources in India will start getting more acute. There will arise individuals who will begin to take advantage of peoples’ pains and use them for electoral/monetary gains. Not that such individuals dont exist now, but the conflict will only grow in the coming decades. What we’d need is enlightened leaders – not just one or two but in hundreds of thousands. We’ll need leaders with vision and zeal. Creating such leaders is rarely possible without good education. So while the goals of the Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan and NLM are noble and should be continued, it is absolutely important to create systems where the leaders of tomorrow will thrive and grow. We need an education system that not only educates the masses but also elevates the masses.

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