Uranium poisoning in Punjab
Coordinates: Uranium poisoning in Punjab first made news in March 2009, when a South African Board Certified Candidate Clinical Metal Toxicologist, Carin Smit, visiting Faridkot city in Punjab, India, instrumental in having hair and urine samples taken (2008/9) of 149/53 children respectively, who affected with birth abnormalities including physical deformities, neurological and mental disorders. These samples were shipped to Microtrace Mineral Lab, Germany.
At the onset of the action research project, it was expected that heavy metal toxicity might be implicated as reasons why these children were so badly affected. Surprisingly, high levels of uranium were found in 88% of the samples, and in the case of one child, the levels were more than 60 times the maximum safe limit.
A study, 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.
As early as 1995, Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) released a report, showing the 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 at that time. 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. As the 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, and a sharp increase in 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 2008, Dr Carin Smit, a Candidate Clinical Metal toxicologist, in private practice in South Africa, and Vera Dirr, a teacher of children with cerebral palsy, 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 requested help for laboratory tests from Microtarce Mineral Lab, Germany. The centre reported a rise in the number of cases in the last six to seven years. The BFCSC uses naturopathic principles to treat is patients.
Subsequent tests, carried out on the ground water displayed levels of uranium as high as 224 micrograms per litre (µg/l). However, samples taken in the vicinity of the around the coal-fired power plants were up to 15 times above the World Health Organisation's maximum safe limits. It was found that the contamination included a large parts of the state of Punjab, home to 24 million people. In 2010, water samples taken from Buddha Nullah, a highly 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 pesticides, the rivulet, is now being termed as "Other Bhopal" in the making.
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 56.95 µg/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 52.79 µg/l.
In the last years, more and more researchers came to the conclusion that geological causes are the source of the uranium contamination in Punjab, as it is known for long that in the underlying Siwalik sediments uranium enrichments occur (Phadke et al. 1985, Singh et al. 2009, Raju et al. 2015).
News of these findings sparked a controversy in the media, as 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 were conducted. It was later stated, "..there is no side affect [sic] 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, a study conducted 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".
- Yadav, Priya (Apr 2, 2009). "Uranium deforms kids in Faridkot". The Times of India.
- "Children of uranium poisoning?". NDTV. September 6, 2009.
- Jolly, Asit (2 April 2009). "Punjab disability 'uranium link'". BBC News.
- Garg, Balwant (Jun 14, 2010). "Uranium levels 62 times higher than normal". The Times Of India.
- Garg, Balwant (Jun 15, 2010). "'Anti-pollution laws only on paper in Punjab'". The Times of India.
- Singh, IP (Jun 16, 2010). "Parts of Raj, Malwa drinking poison?". The Times of India.
- Rana, Yudhvir (Jun 18, 2010). "' Action on this 1995 study could have played a huge role in preventing the indiscriminate poisoning of Punjab children.". The Times of India.
- "Toxic Troubles". The Times of India. Jun 17, 2010.
- Chamberlain, Gethin (30 August 2009). "India's generation of children crippled by uranium waste". The Telegraph (London).
- "Treatment". Baba Farid Center For Special Children (BFCSC).
- Singh, IP (Jun 16, 2010). "Parts of Raj, Malwa drinking poison?". The Times Of India.
- "Buddha Nullah the toxic vein of Malwa". Indian Express. May 21, 2008.
- Garg, Balwant (Jun 15, 2010). "Uranium, metals make Punjab toxic hotspot". The Times of India.
- "Laws To Tackle Other ‘Bhopals’". Mint (newspaper). Jun 10, 2010.
- Baba Farid Center For Special Children (BFCSC), website
- Mystery surrounds uranium poisoning in Punjab
- A.V. Phadke, T.M. Mahadevan, G.R. Narayandas and A.C. Saraswat: Uranium Mineralisation in Some Phanerozoic Sandstones of India, in: Geological Environments of Sandstone-Type Uranium Deposits. International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 1985
- H. Singh, J. Singh, S. Singh and B.S. Bajwa: Uranium concentration in drinking water samples using the SSNTDs. Indian J. Phys. 83: 1039-1044, 2009
- A. Srivastava, F. Knolle, F. Hoyler, U.W. Scherer and E. Schnug: Uranium Toxicity in the State of Punjab in North-Western India. – In: N.J. Raju, W. Gossel and M. Sudhakar (Eds.): Management of Natural Resources in a Changing Environment, Jointly published with Capital Publishing Company, New Delhi, India, 2015