Recommendations on Reducing Hazardous Metals and Minerals Pollution in India

Based on paper presentation made during Indian National Science Congress Sciences (INSA)’s Society Programme and a position paper on ‘Hazardous Metals and Minerals Pollution in India: Sources Toxicity and Management.

New Delhi, Nov 18, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India) While anthropogenic activities are the major source of heavy metal pollution, natural sources contribute significantly to the burden of arsenic and fluoride. Apart from industries, road runoff is also an important source.

The toxic elements enter the body mainly through water, food and air. Cosmetics, dental products, some drugs, particularly Ayurveda and Unani drugs also contribute. More research is needed to assess the extent to which these products affect human health. Public awareness should be created. There should be monitoring and control over the concentration of heavy metals in cosmetics.

The existence of metals in nano form or otherwise should be determined. Toxicity of metals bearing nano particles is a domain where systematic research needs to be carried out to establish or negate toxic factors.

Susceptibility to toxicity is influenced by age, physiological status, nutrition status and genetic factors. More research is needed to study these interactions, particularly since malnutrition is rampant in India. Where specific interactions are known: e.g. lead and calcium, fluoride and calcium, populations exposed to these toxic substances (factory workers, communities living near the factories) should receive periodic health check-up and nutritional support.

Health monitoring of workers engaged in industries handling toxic metals/ minerals should be carried out regularly and nutritional support where necessary provided.

Since toxicity is insidious, mechanisms for early detection of the problem at subclinical level through proper surveillance systems are needed. More research is needed to identify and develop bacteria, plant, and fish- based tests. Functional consequences which may not be too obvious, like effects on reproductive, neurological – cognitive and other functions have to be identified, through more research on animals and humans under controlled conditions. 

India often employs standards of safety developed in the western countries. Considering the genetic diversity and rampant malnutrition, would these apply to India? What is the safe level? Is tolerance developed over prolonged exposure adaptation or compromise? Since fixing standards is a very costly and laborious process, regulatory agencies like the MoEF and PCB, tend to follow the standards developed by developing countries, with modifications to suit the local conditions like body weight, nutrition status etc. The best approach should be to revise the standards periodically and upgrade treatment technologies to meet the standards. A new approach is to develop Environment Specimen Banks (ESB) which can be drawn upon periodically for testing using upgraded technologies.

There should be harmonization of heavy metal standards which are usually risk based and adopted in developed countries. Dichotomy in standards may not be appropriate in this era of globalization. Wherever possible, and techno-economically feasible, source remediation should be practiced. Cleaner technology options avoiding the use of toxic heavy metals and minerals should be explored, documented and shared with Indian industries with a view to adopt cleaner technologies.

Anthropogenic pollution can be at the stage of fabrication or end use. Instead of pollute and clean, mitigation strategies should receive high priority. Regulatory standards for emission and discharges from process plants should be strictly enforced.

Recycling/reprocessing of wastes containing toxic metals needs to be given greater emphasis not only from environmental and health considerations but also as a resource conservation measure. 

Monitoring of air, water and soil in the vicinity of the toxic metal processing units needs to be carried out more rigorously for the specific metal.

Regional accredited laboratories for analyzing pollutants in various environmental compartments should be set up to help regulatory bodies.

Guidelines for proper management of tailings and slags containing toxic metals should be prepared taking into consideration techno- economic feasibility.

Tailings dumps and process wastes lying in locations close to the processing units need to be remediated on priority. Phytorestoration enhances ecological capital and provides biodiversity of choice suitable for the region where such restoration measures are undertaken.

In India, small industries in unorganised sector contribute to a great deal of pollution. While CETP are needed to help small industries, larger ones should set up their own treatment plants and discharge the treated effluent in sewers. Subsidies can be considered for industries which invest in clean technologies. There should be continuing research to develop cost- effective technologies for reduction and replacement. As it is, lot of pollution in India is due to outdated production technologies.

For recovery of heavy metals like mercury from medical devises and CFL bulbs, suitable collection centers need to be set up, and some refund given. As it is, no such mechanism exists and with increasing use of CFL bulbs haphazard disposal can be dangerous.

Attempt should be made to replace CFL bulbs with LED (Light emitting diode) Bulbs.

Mercury-based medical devices and equipment should be totally phased out, since digital options are available.

Presently there is emphasis on production and use of private vehicles-two wheelers, cars. This should change with emphasis on cleaner public transport systems to reduce the burden of road run off. CNG should replace petrol and diesel.

Use of diesel should be confined to public transport and transport of goods. Manufacture of diesel cars should be stopped. Rich are taking the benefit of the subsidy on diesel.

Periodic (six monthly) examination of water quality, particularly for detection of fluoride and arsenic is necessary in newer alluvium and flood plain areas in different parts of India.

Water supplied by urban municipalities and rural panchayats, should be free of (or contain within safe levels) of biotic and abiotic toxicants including heavy metals and minerals. Inexpensive devises for purifying water at household level have to be developed.

Creation of public awareness is very important. Greater interaction between scientists, technologists and media is needed to achieve that. School education can be a mechanism for creating awareness since India is at the stage of development transition, wasteful, consumerist, lifestyle which eats up resources and adds to pollution burden should be discouraged.

We need to remember an old Native American proverb that "We did not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, but borrowed it from our Children”. Their future has to be considered, before plundering the earth and contaminating it.

- PIB Features

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