By Rady Ananda
Home to two coal power plants, a fertilizer plant, and a large oil refinery, the city of Bathinda in Punjab, India is making people sick. Forty percent of the population (nearly 90,000 people) suffers from respiratory ailments. The area also suffers from a host of other diseases including cancer, at a rate triple that of other areas, which has been linked to agrochemicals.
Doctors are urging people to use medicinal inhalers, which is culturally stigmatized. Rather than demanding strict environmental controls, doctors have asked authorities to fund an education campaign to dispel the stigma associated with inhaler use.
Over a million people live in the Bathinda District, known as the cotton belt of Punjab – as in genetically modified cotton sprayed with toxic agrochemicals. As a result, the area has also been plagued by high rates of spontaneous abortions, cancer, genetic deformities, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, fluorosis, bone problems, and a host of skin ailments including rashes and boils.
Debt-related farmer suicides in India spike highest in Bathinda and Sangrur. Dr Vandana Shiva lays this squarely on the lap of GM seed sellers who lure farmers into an ever increasing cost for seed and pesticides.
Earlier this year, plant pathologist Dr. Don M. Huber warned of the discovery of a new soil pathogen linked to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, associating it with spontaneous abortions in animals, sudden death syndrome in Roundup Ready soy, and wilt in Roundup Ready corn.
In 2010, a group of South American scientists linked pesticide use to “cellular changes in organs, more acute signs of ageing in the liver, enzyme function disturbances, and changes in the reproductive organs.” Researcher Andres Carrasco added, “The findings in the lab are compatible with malformations observed in humans exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy.”
Researchers recently reported that 15 states of India, including Punjab, suffer fluoride contamination, mostly caused by agrochemicals. They also cited a study which found that, in 1999, 62 million Indians suffered from dental, skeletal and other forms of fluorosis and associated health problems.
Incidentally, Fluoride Action Network is hosting Fluoride Awareness Week now thru August 13th. Food Freedom has collected key articles and links to films, along with contact info for the US, Canada and New Zealand for those wishing to get involved.
In 2009, the state of Punjab added a third coal power plant to its list of toxic industries. Coal-based thermal plants account for 80% of India’s energy supply, although it has 20 nuclear plants, with plans for several more in the near future, despite civil opposition.
As is common practice in capitalist societies, state-sanctioned murder of and violence against protesters continues unpunished.
The coal-based thermal plants have been implicated in bone, skin and respiratory problems as The Tribune reported:
“In a shocking revelation, it has come to light that the fly ash billowing out of the chimneys of the thermal power plant in Bathinda has not only been causing skin and respiratory problems but also damaging the orthopaedic health of the residents of the colonies located around it.”
A 2007 epidemiological study, known as the PPCB-PGIMER Report, found that Bathinda waters are contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium and mercury. The waste water generated from industry “is drained mostly partially or untreated in the local drains, which had led to the pollution of these drains.” [Executive Summary here]
The study also found DNA mutations in 65% of the blood samples, taken from over 5,000 randomly selected people.
An undated paper by Professor Surinder Singh (published 2004 or later) reported that in addition to groundwater being contaminated by agrochemicals, the presence of uranium may also explain the high rates of cancer:
“About 57.78% of the water samples seems to have uranium concentration above the safe limit of 15µg/1 recently given by WHO (2004) whereas 38.89% of the total samples analyzed have shown the uranium concentration above the recommended level (30µg/l) given by USEPA (2003) and needs some remedial measures. Although the hazardous effects of the uranium can be assessed by its determination in various organs, its residents’ time, retention and excretion from the body yet the higher incidence of different types of cancers in these villages suggests the possible connection.”
Uranium may be contributing to the widespread respiratory problems in Bathinda, and is connected to Gulf War Syndrome. Prof. Singh explains:
“Reports have shown that the major hazard from uranium is due to its chemical toxicity rather than the radiological effect. If inhaled or ingested uranium activity poses increased risk of lung and bone cancer…. The most serious health hazard associated with the uranium is lung cancer due to the inhalation of uranium decay product; radon. Although the kidney is considered to be the primary target in both acute and chronic situations, experimental evidence suggests that the respiratory and reproductive system are also affected by exposure.”
A study of rock samples showed concentrations of uranium ranging up to 62 mg/kg, whereas the world average is 2.1 mg/kg in soil and rocks, he said.
A “cancer train” – as locals have dubbed it – carts stricken patients from Bathinda to a regional treatment center.
Officials continue to deny the link to industry, while morbidity rises as the population’s health worsens.