Unless local, state and the Union governments take a stricter, more coordinated approach to regulating chemicals, expect more Eluru/Visakhapatnam/Bhopals.
Nickel and lead detected in the blood samples of many patients seem to be the likely cause of the mystery illness afflicting over 600 people in Andhra Pradesh’s Eluru district; doctors at AIIMS listed symptoms of lead and nickel poisoning, some of which have been reported for the Eluru patients. It had been earlier suggested that compounds present in common pesticides/fumigants, or even excessive use of bleach and chlorine for Covid-19 sanitation, could have led to the ailment. While the role of contaminated water and milk was also suspected, the state government is now exploring possible of contamination of fruit and vegetables by heavy metals as a source, too. Improper battery disposal has also been talked about. The state government has now set up a multi-disciplinary committee to probe for the source the outbreak and suggest measures to prevent the occurrence of such incidents. The Eluru episode—the second major incident in Andhra this year, after May’s gas leaks in Visakhapatnam, that killed 11 and caused over 1,000 to fall ill—underscores not just the lack of proper enforcement of handling and disposal regulations, but also perhaps an inadequacy of the regulatory framework itself, especially with regards to certain ubiquitous chemicals that we assume to be benign.
In the present instance, while organochlorides from pesticides/fumigants have now been discarded as the toxic agent, health officials, as per some media reports, didn’t dismiss this outright early on. Increased cancer prevalence in certain districts of Punjab have been tied to use of certain pesticides and other agro-chemicals. India, as per Down to Earth, had recorded nearly four major chemical accidents a month in the three years to 2019; experts, though, say this is an understatement since many cases go unregistered. Internationally, too, there are many examples. For instance, Roundup, Monsanto’s most popular weedicide, has been alleged to cause cancer. Bayer, which bought Monsanto, announced earlier this year that it will spend $10 billion to settle tens of thousands claims of the weedicide causing cancer.
India needs to tighten its regulation of chemicals. The National Chemical Policy has been hanging fire from 2012—a new draft was released in 2018, but there has been little progress since. The National Chemical Management Profile, released in 2005-06, says that the country needs standardised procedures and personnel for inspection and vigilance, which, experts say is still a problem plaguing regulation of the chemicals industry in India. Indeed, this one of the reason India continues to use several chemicals that have been banned in developed countries. As per the Interim Report of Monitoring Committee on Management of Hazardous Waste, submitted January 2019, the number of industries producing hazardous waste grew from 36,165 in 2008 to 56,350 in 2016-17, while the amount of annual hazardous waste produced rose from 6.2 million tonnes to 7.7 mt. Close to 1 million tonne failed to get disposed—and as per CPCB data from March, there are 128 confirmed contaminated sites with hazardous substances while another 196 were awaiting confirmation. Unless local, state and the Union governments take a stricter, more coordinated approach to regulating chemicals, expect more Eluru/Visakhapatnam/Bhopals.