Importing danger

Print edition : December 19, 2003

India is increasingly becoming a dumping ground for toxic industrial wastes from developed countries, which can pose serious threats to public health and the environment.

INDIA has become the preferred dumping ground for the world's hazardous substances and industrial wastes, which are often toxic and life-threatening. While developed countries can afford the luxury of banning the use of hazardous substances and even the processes that generate them, governments of developing nations such as India seem to think that they need every dollar and every job that the processing of such substances creates.

Greenpeace activists protest in front of a ship from the U.K carrying a cargo of toxic wastes to the ship-breaking yard at Alang in Gujarat, on November 12.-GREENPEACE/STEVE MORGAN/REUTERS

Thus, brain-damaging mercury and toxic electronic and plastic wastes from the United States; cancer-causing asbestos from Canada; defective steel and tin plates from the European Union, Australia and the U.S.; toxic waste oil from the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Kuwait; toxic zinc ash, residues and skimmings; lead waste and scrap; used batteries; and waste and scrap of metals such as cadmium, chromium, cobalt, antimony, hafnium and thallium from Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Norway are all dumped on India.

Hazardous substances are those that are ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic. Developed countries dump toxic substances on developing countries using a loophole - "exporting for recycling or recovery purposes" - in the 1989 Basel Convention, a United Nations environment treaty that imposes a ban on the export of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries. (The U.S. is the only developed country that has not ratified the Basel Convention.)

Hazardous wastes generated by developed countries have increased manifold. For example, the U.S. produced five times more hazardous waste in 2002 (265 million tonnes) than it did in 1975 (57 million tonnes). The cost of managing such waste in the U.S. ranges from $25 to $2,500 a pond depending on the toxicity and reactivity of the substances. Thus, it is economical to ship toxic wastes to developing countries where the cost of managing them is negligible. This also enables developed countries to keep their environment clean.

According to studies, including those by environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace and Toxic Link, every year over 1,00,000 tonnes of hazardous wastes enter India in gross violation of the 1997 Supreme Court order banning such import. Lately, developed countries have gone another step forward, by shifting production processes that generate hazardous wastes to developing nations. With 101 countries prohibiting waste imports (up from three in 1989), South Asian countries (particularly India) with their lax laws and regulations, are becoming the "preferred dumping ground" for hazardous wastes.

Toxic dumping happens in three ways: direct dumping, export of "dirty" products and export of obsolete waste technology. Mercury tops the list of hazardous substances that are dumped directly in India. According to data published recently by the Kolkata-based Directorate-General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCIS), imports of mercury to India rose sixfold between 1996 and 2002 - from 285 tonnes to 1,858 tonnes. The quantity of organo-mercury compounds (for example, pesticides and slimicides) that made its way into the country zoomed 1,500 times - from 0.7 tonne to 1,312 tonnes. Between 1997 and 2003, over 70 per cent of all the mercury exported from developed countries came to India. Of this, Spain exported 417 tonnes, the U.K. 368 tonnes, Russia 267 tonnes, Italy 172 tonnes, the U.S. 165 tonnes, France 403 tonnes, Germany 806 tonnes, Japan 362 tonnes and China 627 tonnes. India is also the biggest processor of mercury, nearly 70 per cent of the world's production. It consumes 1,350-1,843 tonnes per annum or 50 per cent of the global production.

Why is the rest of the world phasing out mercury? Primarily there are two reasons: the high cost of managing toxic residues locally, and its devastating impact on public health and the environment. Mercury is poisonous in any form - inorganic, organic or elemental. Its organic compound methyl mercury has been scientifically proved to be a neurotoxicant that damages the brain. It is genotoxic too as it passes through the placental and the blood-brain barrier, putting the foetus at risk. Mercury is known to cause severe and permanent damage to the central nervous system, lungs and kidneys. It can trigger depression and suicidal tendencies and cause paralysis, Alzheimer's disease, speech and vision impairment, allergies, hypospermia and impotence.

Mercury is mobile. It persists and bioaccumulates (builds up in organisms) and biomagnifies (moves up the food chain). Even minuscule increases in methyl mercury exposures can affect the cardiovascular system, says the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment Report. It is also suspected to be carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. "With mercury imports continuing unabated, and a pollution problem that has already assumed gargantuan proportions, India sits on the brink of a disaster," the agency warns. Dr. R.C. Srivastava, co-chairperson of the UNEP's Chemicals Working Group and co-chair of the Mercury Global Assessment Report drafting group, agrees: "There is sufficient evidence to show that mercury puts human beings at risk."

Why does India import mercury in such large quantities? Mercury has over 3,000 uses. The largest consumer of the metal is the chlor-alkali industry, which manufactures caustic soda and chlorine, followed by makers of measuring instruments such as thermometers and barometers. It is also used in manufacturing electrical apparatus such as mercury vapour lamps, electrical switches, fluorescent lamps and so on.

What toll does mercury contamination take in India? Mercury has severely contaminated land, water, air and the food chain throughout the country. At a recent conference organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on mercury pollution, Dr. Srivastava said that mercury contamination in India was reaching alarming levels largely owing to the discharge of mercury-bearing industrial effluents, with a load of 0.058-0.268 milligram/litre (mg/l). This is several times more than the prescribed Indian and World Health Organisation (WHO) standards of 0.001 mg/l (for drinking water) and 0.01 mg/l (for industrial effluents).

ANOTHER substance dumped on India is asbestos, a carcinogenic that is banned in all developed countries. Of the 1.25 lakh tonnes of asbestos used in India every year, India imports over one lakh tonnes. Over 80 per cent of the imports come from Canada (which exports nearly all the asbestos it mines) where its use is banned. India's asbestos industry, with a turnover of Rs. 800 crores, is spread over 15 States. India imports raw asbestos worth over Rs.40-50 crores every year. Although it banned the import of asbestos waste in 1998, over 500 tonnes were imported in 1999-2000.

Asbestos has affected the lives of workers who have either mined it or made things out of it. It threatens virtually everyone's health. Because of its durability and tensile strength, asbestos is used in over 3,000 products. In India, asbestos is used mainly in the manufacture of pipes used in irrigation and drainage systems. It is also an input for automobile, petrochemical, fertilizer, transportation and defence industries. Finished products may not be very harmful, but there is enough scientific evidence to show that it poses a health hazard to those exposed to its fibre. Once widely used as insulation for houses and specialised equipment, asbestos was eliminated in many countries when it became known that it has a tendency to break into minute fibres. When inhaled, it can damage the lungs.

Called the magic mineral, asbestos is a generic term for six kinds of naturally occurring mineral fibres. All types of asbestos tend to break into very fine fibre - some of them 700 times finer than human hair. Because of its small size, the fibre remains suspended in the air for several days. Virtually indestructible, the fibre is resistant to chemicals and heat and is very stable in the environment. It does not evaporate in air or dissolve in water. According to Dr. S.K. Dave of the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, the primary routes of exposure to asbestos are inhalation and ingestion.

According to the United States National Toxicology Programme database, there is sufficient evidence to prove the carcinogenicity of all forms of asbestos in humans. Exposure to asbestos particles can cause several fatal diseases including the malignant or cancerous mesothelioma and lung cancer. Other asbestos-induced medical problems include asbestosis, pleural plaques, diffuse pleural fibrosis and benign pleural effusions (pleura is the thin membrane that covers the lungs). According to Greenpeace, in the last 30 years, over 170,000 people have died in India owing to asbestos-induced cancer. According to a study by USA Today, in the next 20 years, asbestos pollution will claim over one million lives in developing countries. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is trying to ban asbestos use in all its 177 member-countries. The attempt is resisted by Canada, the largest exporter of asbestos to India. A number of substitutes to asbestos are used in developed countries, including cellulose polyacrylonitrile, glass fibre and unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In India, Schedule 3 of the Factories Act (1948) lists asbestos as a disease-causing substance. Asbestos use is also regulated by the Air and Water Act, the Hazardous Waste (Handling and Management) Rules 1989 and the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Besides these, the Indian Standards Institution (now the Bureau of Indian Standards) has set a number of national standards and specifications relating to asbestos mining, manufacturing and handling. But the norms for asbestos emission are lax.

EXPORT of electronic waste, or e-waste, is emerging as another major problem. E-waste is the collective name for discarded electronic devices such as monitors, printers, keyboards, central processing units, typewriters, PVC wires, mobile phones and telephones. Among e-wastes, obsolete computers pose a significant environmental and health hazard. The U.S. alone exports over 10 million tonnes of e-waste annually. The waste from these products includes toxic substances such as cadmium and lead in the circuit boards; lead oxide and cadmium in monitor cathode ray tubes; mercury in the switches and flat screen monitors; cadmium in computer batteries; polychlorinated biphenyls in older capacitors and transformers; and brominated flame retardants on printed circuit boards, plastic casings, cables and PVC cable insulation that releases highly toxic dioxins and furans when they are burned to retrieve copper from the wires. Most of these substances are toxic and many are carcinogenic.

These materials are complex and difficult to recycle in an environmentally sustainable manner even in developed countries. What is needed are sophisticated technologies and processes, which are expensive, and hi-tech skills and training that are often beyond the reach of most developing countries.

According to a report by the Delhi-based Toxic Link, India is becoming the largest dumping ground for e-waste, especially used computers, from the U.S., Singapore and South Korea. Though the government has prohibited the import of used computers, they land as "donations" or "charity" and there is no specific check to monitor their entry, says the report.

The Toxic Link report points out that India has over 1.38 million obsolete computers with manufacturers adding about 1,050 tonnes of electronic scrap every year. E-wastes now form over 70 per cent of landfills, warns the report.

According to "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia", a 2000 report by a group of U.S.-based environmental organisations, over 80 per cent of the 20 million computers (containing 1,000 different substances, most of them toxic) that became obsolete in the U.S. moved to Asia; India was a major importer of these. This e-waste, closely stacked, can encompass an area of one acre (4,047 square metres) and rise to a height of 674 feet (202 metres).

Much of all this waste reaches Indian shores on ships. Interestingly, these vessels are also sent to India when they complete their sailing life. Ship-breaking sounds like a harmless industry, but is far from that. Considerable toxic wastes are generated in the process.

Just one minor port, Alang in Gujarat, breaks up over half of the world's ships that are scrapped. The over 25,000 workers of Alang are exposed to asbestos, cancer-causing chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyl (recently the U.S. banned its use in manufacturing processes), heavy metals and toxic paints. The working conditions are also extremely hazardous. By the end of 2002, the U.S. ordered over 300 of its rusting naval vessels to be sent to India and Bangladesh.

Indeed, the international waste industry has arrived in India. Many of these ventures are financed with government subsidies and by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (a subsidiary of the World Bank that lends to private industries). But many of these technologies seem to be economically unviable and, worse, environmentally hazardous.

Instead of selling safer technologies, companies prefer to sell only those that are not saleable in their own countries owing to the stringent standards prevailing there. These obsolete methods are exported to India while developed countries have moved to safer technologies such as autoclaves and microwaves.

According to CSE director Sunita Narain, many alternatives are available for dealing with these toxic substances and these are used in developed countries. For instance, the chlor-alkali industry can switch to the membrane cell process. Similarly, mercury substitutes are used in medical equipment in the developed world.

Says Sunita Narain: "We should leapfrog to clean substitutes because we cannot afford to become the world's dumpyard for toxic substances." More appalling is that while the world is dumping mercury into India, the government has bothered neither to regulate its trade and use, nor to keep an inventory of the metal's stock. According to available data, only about 0.2 per cent of the mercury used in the country is regulated. There is no information on how almost 90 per cent of the mercury India imports is used.

It is not as if there are no laws or international instruments to regulate trade in hazardous wastes. Two multilateral environmental agreements cover mercury and its compounds: the Basel Convention on Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. These instruments regulate trade in hazardous wastes but contain no commitment to reduce their use and release. In India, there are the Hazardous Waste Act, 1989, and the May 1997 Supreme Court ruling banning the import of hazardous wastes followed by the orders of February 1998 disallowing auction of hazardous waste stocks in ports and container depots. But these legal instruments are practised more in the breach.

Citizens groups such as Toxic Link, Shristi, CSE, SEWA, Exnora and Greenpeace have on many occasions highlighted the pollution hazards of mercury, asbestos, ship-breaking, e-waste and so on. In 2001, for instance, a campaign led by several environmental groups in the U.S. and India sent back a Mumbai-bound cargo ship carrying close to 200 tonnes of mercury reclaimed from Holtrachem, a factory in Maine, U.S. This was followed by a sustained campaign in Tamil Nadu for the closure of a thermometer factory owned by Hindustan Lever Limited (a subsidiary of Unilever) in Kodaikanal (Frontline, August 29, 2003) that was dumping mercury waste, causing irreparable damage to public heath and environment. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to Ravi Agarwal of the New Delhi-based Shristi, it is becoming increasingly clear that many products in the global economy are leaving an international trail of toxic waste. Any solution, he says, must be based on fundamental approaches such as the precautionary or polluter-pays principles, which are recognised even in international laws. According to him, new types of wastes, untried technologies to handle waste, and unsafe industrial processes should not be permitted and measures such as making industries accountable, strengthening local initiatives, maintaining precautionary principle and refusing waste from other countries should be taken.

Harry Suryadi, a Bangkok-based environmental activist, says: "The cradle-to-grave approach for every product that is made up of hazardous substances will go a long way in checking hazardous waste exports to India." According to him, the company that manufactures products containing toxic substances, such as computer monitors and so on, should also take the responsibility of managing them when they become obsolete and are ready to be discarded. It is high time, he says, India took a serious look at the problem, which is slowly assuming alarming proportions as the problems they create far outweigh the gains from them.

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