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Hold your breath: You're in SIPCOT, Cuddalore

By Nityanand Jayaraman

Chemical odours are an indicator of serious chemical pollution. If you can smell it, the chemicals may already be above safe levels. At the SIPCOT chemical industrial estate in Cuddalore, one of the smelliest places on earth, villagers have formed their own environmental monitoring committee and have quantifiably established that they are being gassed on a daily basis

Just as the Inuit natives of the ice-bound lands of the North Pole have a hundred words to describe different kinds of snow, the villagers living in and around the SIPCOT chemical industrial estate in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, have a multitude of words to describe the chemical odours that assail them throughout the day. SIPCOT, Cuddalore, has to be among the smelliest places in Tamil Nadu.

Most villagers, even children, can tell you the name of the company they are standing downwind of just by the smell. “There is the SPIC factory that smells like a public toilet; Asian Paints smells like sapota fruit; Pioneer Chemicals smells alternately like a burning dead body or a decomposing corpse; Tagros Chemicals has a hospital-like odour or sometimes like boiled sugarcane juice; Shasun Chemicals stinks really bad like rotten cabbage or rotten eggs,” recounts S Ramanathan, a villager from Semmankuppam, and a member of the recently-formed community group called SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring (SACEM). SACEM comprises village volunteers trained in monitoring, documenting and taking evidence-based action on pollution.

Villagers have for years complained about the intense chemical odours that pervade their homes at all times of the day. “At night, the stench engulfs us. We just can’t breathe. There’s nothing we can do except go indoors and shut all the doors. We can’t bear it. Our eyes burn. We feel like somebody is tearing at them, and our chests feel suffocated every time the wind brings the smell,” says Lalita of Eachangadu. Her friend Solai adds: “When the stench sets in, at least we can cover our noses with a cloth. What will the infants do? That’s why they are always sick. We can’t do anything and nobody cares.” Both Lalita and Solai testified to the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights headed by Justice (Retd) J Kanakaraj of the Madras High Court in November 2002.

Even the tribunal members who visited SIPCOT reported “a noticeable stench of chemicals in the air”. In their report, published in July 2003, the tribunal writes: “Villages like Kudikadu, Thaikal, Eachangadu and Sonnanchavadi lie in a virtual ‘gas chamber’ surrounded on three sides by chemical factories and bounded on the fourth by the river.”

Chemical odours are an indicator of serious chemical pollution. If you can smell it, the chemicals may already be above safe levels, says Dr K Babu Rao, a chemical engineer and scientist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad. For example, if you can smell benzene, which has an aromatic odour, you’re already inhaling at least 38,281 times higher than danger levels. Similarly, formaldehyde, which has a characteristic pungent odour, has an odour threshold to danger level of 11,400.

Air pollutants are particularly dangerous because unlike water- or food-borne toxins, many air pollutants enter the brain directly after inhalation.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board is supposed to maintain the quality of the environment outside the factory; the Factories Inspectorate is supposed to ensure that the workplace is safe. Neither regulator has, to date, presented a single scientific study investigating the chemicals behind the odours or the health effects that may have resulted. Indeed, even a review of scientific literature will reveal the possible chemicals behind the odours reported. For instance, methyl mercaptan and dimethyl sulphide smell like rotten cabbage. Acetone is the key ingredient in nail polish. The rotten egg smell is characteristic of hydrogen sulphide, a gas that affects the central nervous system and stunts the mental development of children.

Unfortunately, Indian regulators have treated chemical odours merely as a nuisance, and people’s complaints have been dismissed without presenting a shred of evidence to justify the dismissal.

Do it yourself

“There is a general sentiment especially among bureaucrats and regulators that villagers are fools and lowlifes,” says Shweta Narayan, coordinator of the Community Environmental Monitoring project. “It is, in fact, the educated people in high places that cannot understand the common sense statements made by the villagers. That is why our project is equipping villagers with the ability to convert their common sense observations on pollution into a language that regulators cannot ignore.”

In August 2004, SACEM published its first report -- on chemical odour incidents in SIPCOT. The report summarised data gathered over a 14-week period between April and July 2004. In total, monitors recorded 283 chemical odour incidents, of which 223 were intense. Interestingly, monitors were able to discern 36 kinds of odours and 30 immediate health symptoms related to the odours. They confirmed that although chemical odours were prevalent throughout the day, their intensity and frequency were higher in the late evenings and early mornings.

“Until recently, we would talk only in general about pollution. But now we see and understand the details, and this is helpful in communicating pollution as a problem,” says S Pugazhenthi, a fisherman and SACEM member.

Through their odour-monitoring study, the villagers have quantifiably established that they are being gassed on a daily basis.

In September 2004, SACEM released the results of five air samples taken by them between April and July. For the first time in India, ambient air was tested for 89 toxic gases. The monitoring was done not by the Pollution Control Board or the industry, but by villagers armed with a bucket. (See ‘Bucket brigade’). The report entitled ‘Gas Trouble: Air Quality in SIPCOT, Cuddalore’ found 22 toxic gases, of which at least 13 were used as raw materials in one or more SIPCOT industries.

At least 14 of the 22 chemicals, including trichloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, acrolein, methylene chloride and hydrogen sulphide, violate the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety levels. 1,2-dichloroethane, a cancer-causing chemical that was found in an air sample taken downwind of Tagros Chemicals, exceeded safety levels by a factor of 22,973. Levels of hydrogen sulphide, a gas that smells of rotten eggs, in the air sample taken downwind of CUSECS Pump House No 5 was 874 times the US EPA safety level.

According to SACEM, the report justifies the SIPCOT villagers’ demands for continuous air monitoring, including for toxic gases, an aggressive air pollution elimination programme, long-term health monitoring, specialised healthcare facilities for SIPCOT residents and a ban on the setting up or expansion of any polluting facility in SIPCOT.

“I have worked nine years with the bucket and seen at least 500 results from different places around the world. SIPCOT, Cuddalore, has to be the worst place to breathe and certainly the worst that I have seen in terms of the kinds and levels of toxic gases in the air,” says Denny Larson of the California-based NGO Global Community Monitor. “The levels of some of the chemicals are at least 1,000 times higher than what we saw in other developing countries like South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines.” Larson’s organisation is a partner in the Community Environmental Monitoring project. Other partners include village volunteers from SIPCOT, Cuddalore-based consumer organisations FEDCOT and the Cuddalore District Consumer Organisation, and environment and human rights group The Other Media.

Response at last…Still a long way to go

The report triggered instant reactions from a number of agencies. The Madras High Court directed the state legal aid cell to file a public interest petition on the matter. The State Human Rights Commission took suo motu notice of the report’s findings and asked the Pollution Control Board to respond. And the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to set ambient air quality standards for toxic gases, and directed the State Pollution Control Board to bring down levels of air pollution below USEPA-prescribed safe levels within three months, or order the companies to shut down.

Strangely though, on October 11, when the CPCB embarked on the monitoring exercise ordered by the Supreme Court, it did not contact the village monitors whose pollution patrols and sampling resulted in the ‘Gas Trouble’ report. Instead, the CPCB team was taken around the SIPCOT estate by industry representatives.

Even while efforts, seemingly to respond to the environmental crisis in SIPCOT, are on, the state government is engaged in business-as-usual. At least three new industrial proposals threaten the residents of SIPCOT.

This despite the fact that the Indian People’s Tribunal, in 2003, and the State Human Rights Commission, in 1998, noted with concern that the people and the environment of SIPCOT were already subject to toxic overload. Both had recommended that no new polluting industries be allowed in SIPCOT.

The most frightening of the three new proposals is the one for a 38-tonne-per-month ammonium perchlorate unit by Pandian Chemicals. The chemical is a deadly explosive used as rocket fuel to propel spacecraft and missiles. Not only that, perchlorates are a common and persistent groundwater toxin that can inhibit the functioning of the thyroid in exposed people. Particularly at risk are nursing infants, foetuses, children and pregnant women who tend to have low levels of thyroid hormones to start with. Thyroid malfunction affects the mental and physical development of children, impaired vision, movement, hearing and behaviour, enlargement of thyroid glands and possible thyroid tumours. Children born to mild to moderate iodine deficient mothers can suffer from low IQ and impaired brain development, according to scientific literature.

Add to these problems the risk of an explosion. In February 2004, an explosion at an ammonium perchlorate unit at India’s premier space research facility in Sriharikota killed 36 people instantly.

In Cuddalore, the same chemical is being manufactured by a small industry. Even worse, the public hearing was done away with because the project was a small industry located within a notified industrial area. The assumption here is that a notified industrial area would meet safety norms and siting criteria such as distance from habitation and water sources. Unfortunately, within 100 metres of Pandian is a town bus stand, a house, an electricity board office and the beginning of the Semmankuppam village. A deadly factory in a populated area. Remember Bhopal?

The residents of Semmankuppam are rightfully irate. Their panchayat had passed a resolution several years ago prohibiting the setting up of polluting industries within its boundaries. The panchayat president has, to date, refused to give its okay to Pandian despite intense pressure from the panchayat union, the government and the industry.

SACEM says if nobody’s listening, they’ll be made to listen by the sheer weight of the evidence and public opinion generated.

Bucket brigade

Between December 2003 and March 2004, SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors received training in water pollution, chemical odour and air pollution monitoring. In March 2004, the US-based NGO Global Community Monitor trained the monitors to take air samples during intense odour incidents using a unique community-friendly device called the ‘bucket’.

The bucket (which is literally that) serves as a rugged enclosure for a sampling bag made of a special material called Tedlar. The bucket’s airtight lid is fitted with an inlet valve connected to the Tedlar sampling bag and an outlet valve connected to a small vacuum pump. Operating the vacuum pump empties the bucket of air and creates a pressure differential that allows outside air to flow through the inlet into the sampling bag. Once filled, the bag is sealed, removed and sent to a laboratory that will analyse the contents for a total of 89 toxic gases.

The bucket was developed as a low-cost community sampling device to help communities take instant air samples before the pollution disappeared. Barring the imported special stainless steel inlet valve and the Tedlar bag, the bucket deployed in Cuddalore is fully Indian and costs approximately Rs 1,500. The fully stainless steel air sampling canister that the bucket replaces costs upwards of Rs 25,000 and can be used only once after which it has to be returned to the lab for analysis. It can be reused once the sample is purged and the canister is cleaned by the lab.

Currently, the Tedlar samples are being sent to a USEPA-certified laboratory in California, where the cost of analysis varies between Rs 10,000 and Rs 25,000 per sample depending on what you want to test for. The analysis is performed using a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer for volatile organic compounds, and a gas chromatograph fitted with a sulphur chemiluminescence detector for sulphur gases.

However, it is hoped that the first few samples will create a sufficient demand for such analyses in India to force Indian labs to invest the resources to enable them to perform Tedlar analyses within the country.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004