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Uranium poisoning in Punjab

 

Uranium poisoning in Punjab first made news in March 2009, when a South African toxicologist, Dr Carin Smit associated with UK-based Defeat Autism Now!, while visiting Faridkot city in Punjab, India, had hair and urine samples of 149 children affected with birth abnormalities including physical deformities, neurological and mental disorders, sent to Microtarce Mineral Lab, Germany. Though doctors expected heavy metal toxicity, what they were surprised to find was high levels of uranium in the samples, and in one case more than 60 times the maximum safe limit.

In June 2010, studies carried out amongst mentally retarded children in the Malwa region of Punjab, revealed 87% of children below 12 years and 82% beyond that age having uranium levels high enough to cause diseases, also uranium levels in samples of three kids from Kotkapura and Faridkot were 62, 44 and 27 times higher than normal. Subsequently, the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children, Faridkot, sent samples of five children from the worst-affected village, Teja Rohela, near Fazilka, which has over 100 children which are congenitally mentally and physically challenged, to the same lab.

History

As early as 1995, Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) released a report, showing presence of uranium and other heavy metals beyond permissible limits in water samples collected from Bathinda and Amritsar district, however there was no response from the government. The hotspot for this increased toxicity, however was the Malwa region of Punjab, which showed extremely high levels of chemical, biological and radioactive toxicity, including uranium contamination. So as region's groundwater and food chain was gradually contaminated by industrial effluents flowing into fresh water sources used both for irrigation and drinking purposes, the region showed a rise in neurological diseases, cancer cases and kidney ailments, for example in Muktsar district between 2001 and 2009, 1,074 people died of cancer.

Over the years, a case of slow poisoning was suspected by health workers of the Baba Farid Center For Special Children (BFCSC) in Bathinda and Faridkot, when they saw a sharp increase in the number of severely handicapped children, birth defects like hydrocephaly, microcephaly, cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and other physical and mental abnormalities, and cancers in children.

In March 2009, Dr Carin Smit, a clinical metal toxicologist, associated with the UK-based non-governmental organisation, Defeat Autism Now, and Vera Dirr, a specialist, alarmed after seen a high incidences of abnormalities in local children at the Baba Farid Center For Special Children (BFCSC) in Faridkot, a not-for-profit organization working with kids, ailing from autism, cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders started collecting urine and hair samples of 149 affected children and sent them for tests to Microtarce Mineral Lab, Germany. The centre reported rise in the number of cases in the last six to seven year, and uses naturopathy to treat is patients.

Subsequent tests, carried out on the ground water displayed levels of uranium as high as 224mcg/l (micrograms per litre), around the plants being up to 15 times the World Health Organisation's maximum safe limits, and that the contamination included a large parts of the state, home to 24 million people. In 2010, water samples taken from Buddha Nullah, a high polluted water canal, which merges into the Sutlej River, showed heavy metal content as quite high and the presence of uranium 1½ times the reference range and together with other forms of pollution, like ammonia, phosphate, chloride, chromium, arsenic and chlorpyrifos pesticide, the rivulet, is now being terms as "Other Bhopal" in the making.

Causes

An investigation carried out The Observer newspaper, in 2009, revealed the possible that cause of contamination of soil and ground water in Malwa region of Punjab, to be the fly ash from coal burnt at thermal power plants, which contains high levels of uranium and ash as the region has state's two biggest coal-fired power stations.

Tests on ground water carried out by Dr Chander Parkash, a wetland ecologist and Dr Surinder Singh, also at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, found the highest average concentration of uranium 56.95mcg/l, in the town of Bhucho Mandi in Bathinda district, a short distance from the ash pond of Lehra Mohabat thermal power plant. At village Jai Singh Wala, close to the Batinda ash pond, similar test results showed an average level of 52.79mcg/l. There have also been claims of the contamination being the result of depleted uranium carried on the wind, from the wars such Gulf War in Iraq, and recent military action in Afghanistan.

Response

After the controversy came into media, the Government of Punjab in April 2009, ordered a probe into the matter, and a series of tests with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, and later stated, "..there is no side affect of uranium and they have studied in the hair parts and the levels are very much below the levels. So that can't cause any mental retardation or any abnormality, " ...The government attributed the abnormalities to genetic disorders. The local media, however blamed the government for the absence of proper norms to monitor the environmental impact of ash ponds, and lack of proper study of the prevalent uranium contamination in the region.

Other forms of toxicity

In 2009, under a Greenpeace Research Laboratories investigation, Dr Reyes Tirado, from the University of Exeter, UK conducted the study in 50 villages in Muktsar, Bathinda and Ludhiana districts revealed chemical, radiation and biological toxicity rampant in Punjab. 20% of the sampled wells showed nitrate levels above the safety limit of 50 mg/l, established by WHO, the study connected it with high use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. With increasing poisoning of the soil, the region once hailed as the home to the Green revolution, now due to excessive use of chemical fertilizer, is being termed the "Other Bhopal", and "even credit-takers of the Revolution have begun to admit they had been wrong, now that they see wastelands and lives lost to farmer suicides in this “granary of India".

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_poisoning_in_Punjab

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