Posts tagged pollution

Ganga Maiyya or world’s largest open sewer?

Buffaloes bathing in world’s largest open sewer

I read an obnoxious article on recently on the River Ganga (Ganges). The investigative report found that Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to, ironically, reduce the level of pollution in the river. Just how polluted is the river?

  • Near Haridwar, coliform bacteria, which cause diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, are present at a concentration of 5500 mpn/100ml. The permissible levels are 50mpn for drinking, 500mpn for bathing and 5000mpn for agriculture. Such high concentations are because the 12 municipal towns located on Ganga’s banks from Gangotri to Haridwar release around 90 million litres of sewage, urine and faeces into the river every day.
  • Near Kanpur, the river turns toxic due to industrial sewage disposal. Despite repeated awareness campaigns against tanneries, they release about 40 million litres of effluents/day of which only 9 million litres is treated. These effluents contain chromium at a concentration of 248 mg/litre, when the WHO limit for drinking water is 0.05 mg/litre, a shocking 5000X higher concentration!! Chromium toxicity can cause a wide range of problems, from allergic reactions and dermatitis to cancer and dementia.
  • Near Varanasi, around 300 tonnes of half-burnt carcasses, corpses and ashes are thrown into the river each year. Coliform bacteria are present at 2 lakh mpn/100ml. Of the three sewage treatment plants, two are not operational.
  • Near Patna and Kolkata, the situation is the same – extremely high amount of coliform bacteria, huge volumes of industrial effluents and skyrocketing concentrations of toxic compounds!

The Gangetic Dolphin, the vehicle of Goddess Ganga – both of whom we have managed to kill in the last 50 years

This is a shame, and we all know it. This seems even more bizarre in the context of the current leadership in Uttar Pradesh – Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s Chief Minister, studied Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering! What is the use of these degrees if, even after almost being the KING of the state, one cannot hasten the process of purification of the most sacred river in the country! Alas, the political parties in the state can spend millions of dollars building statues and parks but not for developing a robust system to curb the pollution of Ganga. (Note: The Ganga Action Plan, conceptualized in 1985 as “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” has been termed a colossal failure, despite spending Rs.10 billion up until 2000)

What are the implications of Ganga’s pollution? Here are a few facts:

  • The Gangetic basin is the most heavily populated basin in the world, supplying water to 400 million people!
  • Ganga provides water to 40% of India’s population in 11 states. This water is used for everything – cooking, drinking, washing clothes, agriculture, bathing…everything!
  • A study found that 66% of the families near Varanasi were affected by diseases like cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis-A, Typhoid etc.
  • The pollution has threatened more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Gangetic River Dolphin. The latter dolphin species, which is considered the vehicle of Goddess Ganga, is almost extinct.

Hindus believe that bathing in Ganga will wash away all your sins. “Ganga consumes all your sins and still remains pure…that is why it is divine”, they say. I would suggest forcing numb-nuts who make such arguments drink the water of Ganga for a week. Such capital punishments should also be meted out to owners of industries which release effluents in the river. Without a few strong, well-publicized cases of repugnant action, we will never be able to bring Ganga back from the dead. No amount of awareness campaigns will work. Ganga has soaked our sins for the past four thousand years, however, we have effectively managed to KILL IT in the past fifty years alone!

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.

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!


Advantages Impacts/Issues


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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