Bucket brigades

Print edition : June 17, 2005

ENVIRONMENTAL monitoring has relied traditionally on government or industry data and information. In many countries, neither the government nor industry offers consistent or transparent programmes to monitor pollution and its effects. But, thanks to public interest and people's organisations, a growing body of knowledge is evolving worldwide about low-cost technologies and research methods that allow communities themselves to monitor pollution.

In 1995, Edward Masry, a lawyer in northern California, became frustrated that even as his clients breathed toxic air daily, the authorities denied the existence of a problem. Masry hired a team of environmental engineers to create an inexpensive and simple means of monitoring air pollution accurately. The engineers developed a 25-litre bucket containing a three-litre Tedlar bag with a mechanism to inflate it. Once inflated with an air sample, the bag is sealed and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The bucket device is easy to use and produces reliable results.

Denny Larson, who helped develop the device, has worked to promote this new technology in several communities in the United States and elsewhere. He founded the Global Community Monitor, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people in communities affected by air pollution by equipping them with the tools and knowledge necessary to fight the problem.

Affordable to people in the global North, this simple technology is still beyond the reach of communities in developing countries owing to the high cost of analyses - about $500 a sample. Nevertheless, resourceful community groups have developed innovative techniques to make the `bucket technology' affordable by coupling this testing with simple observation.

In Tamil Nadu's Cuddalore district, a new partnership in the highly polluted SIPCOT industrial area has helped the people of six villages get to the root of the serious health problems that have long plagued them. Villagers have teamed up with The Other Media, consumer group FEDCOT, and the GCM to gather evidence to force companies to comply with pollution laws.

In March 2004, Larson visited Cuddalore to share skills on the bucket sampling with the SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors (SACEM). Pollution Monitors, all from villages in and around SIPCOT, had begun recording on simple data sheets instances of air and water pollution as also occupational injury and death.

Between December 2003 and March 2004, the SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring received training in tracking water and air pollution, and chemical odour. In March 2004, the GCM trained the monitors to take air samples during intense odour episodes using an indigenised `bucket'.

Barring the imported special stainless steel inlet valve and the Tedlar bag, the `bucket' (literally that) deployed in Cuddalore is fully Indian and costs approximately Rs.1,500. The fully stainless steel air sampling canister costs upwards of Rs.25,000 and can be used only once after which it has to be returned to the laboratory for analysis. It can be reused once the sample is purged and the canister cleaned by the laboratory.

The Tedlar samples are now being sent to a United States Environment Protection Agency-certified laboratory in California, where the cost of analysis varies from Rs.10,000 to Rs.25,000 a sample depending on what is sought to be tested. 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, hopefully, sufficient demand will be generated for such analyses in India to force Indian laboratories to invest in the technology/equipment to enable them to perform Tedlar analyses within the country.

To stretch its small budget, SACEM decided to make do with five samples paid for with funds raised by the GCM. Simultaneously, in March, SACEM began a study of chemical odour episodes. Monitors used simple data sheets to note the details of the odours even as they went about their lives. Besides the date and time of the episode, the monitors noted the kind of smell, the immediate symptoms, the possible source, and the wind direction. The exercise relied on the human nose and cost nothing beyond the photocopying of the data sheets. In August 2004, the report was released. SACEM had recorded 36 distinct chemical odours and 30 related health symptoms in the 283 chemical odour episodes documented over 14 weeks.

The study that quantified the villagers' long-standing complaints about the frequency and intensity of the chemical odours apparently prompted the local environmental regulatory agency to begin its own programme of monitoring the "SIPCOT" air. The five samples that SACEM took were snapshots of routine chemical odour incidents documented by the monitors. The results revealed the presence of 22 toxic gases in "SIPCOT's air", of which 13 are known to be raw materials used by units in the industrial estate.

Again, between October 2004 and March 2005, five samples were taken and sent for analysis to the U.S. laboratory, which showed that toxic gases still persisted in the "SIPCOT air".

Outreach to the communities about the results and health implications prompted the people of these villages to demand long-term environmental monitoring and regular publication of results; comprehensive health monitoring and medical treatment for the affected communities; an aggressive programme to curb toxic emissions from the existing factories; and a ban on setting up or expanding any polluting industries in SIPCOT.

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