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Pallikaranai: Every breath you take here is harmful

G JAGANNATH
News Today
Chennai, Dec 4, 2005:

An air sample of the smoke taken from the open burning of garbage in the Pallikaranai marshland revealed the presence of at least 27 toxic chemicals, including three cancer-causing chemicals, at a very high level, according to a test conducted by Community Environmental Monitoring, an non-governmental organisation.

The air sample, which was analysed for 69 volatile organic chemicals and 20 sulphur compounds, found carcinogens like benzene, 1,3-butadiene and chloromethane at levels of 2,360 times, 34,782 times and 209 times higher than levels considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). At least 15 out of 27 chemicals found exceeded US EPA's regulatory levels.

The air sample, taken from the Pallavaram Perungudi Road, was collected on 28 September 2005 in a special tedlar bag using a bucket as a container to house the bag. The

sample was taken in the presence of Save Pallikaranai Marshland Forum (SPMF) under the National Air Toxics study program of CEM and was analysed at a USEPA-recognised laboratory in California, USA. Most of the chemicals found could attack the central nervous system and the respiratory system. Children exposed to such chemicals are particularly vulnerable. Their developing immune and reproductive systems can be permanently damaged by chronic exposure to these chemicals.

Benzene, which can cause childhood leukemia, was found more than 2,000 times higher than levels thought to be safe. Benzene was the chemical that poisoned an entire river in Harbin, China, last week.

More than a third of the city's garbage is dumped in Pallikaranai by Onyx, private contractor for Chennai Corporation, Alandur municipality, local residents and commercial establishments.

"It is to be expected that the chemicals found are typical of most open burning of mixed garbage. The culprit is not the fire, but the environmentally unsustainable material such as different kinds of plastics in packaging, and the toxic substances such as pesticide cans that end up in the garbage," said Nityanand Jayaram of CEM. Along with SPMF, CEM has called for an immediate end to dumping of waste in the wetland, and for the implementation of the Municipal Solid Waste Act that calls for source-segregation of waste and composting of biodegradable waste. Additionally, the government should take aggressive steps to encourage the development of eco-friendly and socially-just alternatives to the plastics-based packaging prevalent today.

S Kumararaja, executive member, SPMF told News Today, "we have been battling with authorities to end all the dumping in the marshes and declare it a protected area, but all in vain." Now, he said, "we have proof (report) in hand, we are going to submit these reports to the district collector and the pollution control board to take immediate steps to check garbage-dumping. If they failed to do, we will be filing a case in the Madras High Court." He noted that recently Bombay High Court had delivered a judgement on a similar case where it asked the government to protect the marshland under the Forest Act. The forum also plans to organise a token fast and human chain to get public support.

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