Nearly a third of Kodungaiyur residents have difficulty breathing, but no action on waste dump

An in-depth survey by CAG revealed the presence of heavy metals at Chennai's Kodungaiyur dump yard. As it has a direct, visible impact on public health, remediation of the dump yard is the need of the hour. Realisation, however, does not seem very close.

Saritha M, a 26-year-old from Kodungaiyur suffered from skin infections for as long as she could remember. Multiple visits to hospitals would bring temporary respite, but permanent recovery remained elusive. “Two years ago, I shifted from Kodungaiyur after my marriage. Soon afterward, my skin infection was completely cured,” said Saritha, concluding that the polluted groundwater in her locality was the reason behind the infections.

“My doctor is certain that the infection had been caused by dangerous chemicals in the water. Even today, if I stay at my mother’s house for more than ten days, the infection reappears. It takes a few months to treat it,” Saritha said.

Mountains of unsegregated waste, heavy metals in groundwater and escalating health issues — the scenario in areas around Kodungaiyur, a dumping ground for nine out of 15 zones in Chennai, is a clear example of how a city can choke in its own filth. A drone camera surveillance conducted a year ago, by members of the social and environmental forum Vettiver collective, indicated that the dump yard was 300 feet height, spanning across 345 acres. “Only 0.004 percent of the garbage (200 tonnes) that reaches the dump yard is segregated. Some 2500 tonnes of unsegregated waste is dumped at Kodungaiyur by 252 lorries every day,” said D K Venkatesh, one of the surveyors.

As a result, residents like Saritha, in neighbourhoods near the Kodungaiyur dump yard, continue to be vulnerable to respiratory and skeletal disorders. A close analysis of an in-depth ongoing survey conducted by Chennai-based non-profit Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), gives us frightening statistics: 30.8% of the participants from Kodungaiyur have respiratory problems.

A heavy toll

Several studies and analyses have underlined the huge toll on human health and well being that the dumpyard takes. CAG, for example, used the Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) concept to assess the impact of waste management practises on the citizens in Kodungaiyur.

It has conducted the initial phases of a planned two-year long survey among four focus groups in Kodungaiyur – residents, scrap shop workers, conservancy workers and informal waste pickers. The aim was to understand issues relating to health, society, property and environment arising from the waste. Self-reported data on the symptoms faced due to garbage accumulation were collected from 66 participants from all strata of society. The findings were that:

  • 31.7 percent of the residents experienced symptoms that affect the skeletal and muscular system. Symptoms included severe to mild pain in the limbs, stiff joints and back pain.
  • 32.8 percent of respondents faced common respiratory issues such as persistent cold and cough, sneezing, wheezing and breathing difficulties. Respondents said these symptoms were due to the burning of garbage at Kodungaiyur.
  • 8.5 percent of the respondents experienced headache and sleeplessness
  • 7.48 percent had eye infections
  • 7.2 percent of respondents complained of skin infections, itchiness, flaky skin and burning sensation

Soil, air and water contamination

The samples collected so far hold ominous signs. “Samples of air, water, and leachate from different locations in Kodungaiyur tested positive for the presence of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. The permissible limits set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for certain metals have been exceeded for some heavy metals,” says the CAG report.

“The soil here is not as polluted as the water. We have identified two to three heavy metals in the groundwater, upon analysing the tap water drawn by borewell at a house situated next to the dump yard,” said Vamsi Kapilai, a researcher from CAG, validating the report.

Besides the CAGs survey, multiple surveys have been done in the locality, all of which point to hazardous conditions. “There were nine chemicals found in the air in 2006. The number increased to 19 in 2012, with chemicals including toxic ones such as nitrogen, monoxides and dioxides of carbon, and sulphur. The dump yard is thus releasing toxic gases in the atmosphere,” said D K Venkatesh.

Venkatesh is also a resident of R K Nagar, the locality behind the dump yard, and has first hand experience of the adverse health impact of air and water pollution here. “My wife developed a skin allergy after relocating to Kodungaiyur. However, a majority of the residents are still unaware of the link between the pollution and their deteriorating health,” he said.

The solution

Remediation of the Kodungaiyur dump yard was a major electoral promise of all Chennai candidates who contested the Lok Sabha polls recently. Once the model code of conduct for elections lapses, Chennai Corporation is all set to float tenders to bio-mine a part of the Kodungaiyur dump yard, says N Mahesan, Chief Engineer (Buildings and Solid Waste Management), Greater Chennai Corporation.

Bio mining is a technique used to extract and segregate minerals and other useful materials from mounds of waste. It is a remediation process that helps in converting the biodegradable waste in the dumpyard into manure through a step-by-step scientific procedure. Biomining begins with slackening of the accumulated waste and its segregation into non-biodegradable (including recyclables) and biodegradable waste in the dump yard. Plastic and other materials are sold to the recycling units. But, with barely 29 percent of the city’s waste segregated at source, biomining the decades-old Kodungaiyur dump will be a mammoth task.

The permanent solution, therefore, lies in segregation at source. Micro composting centres (MCC) set up at ward levels aim to segregate waste in the ward itself, but in reality, only a few implement it to the fullest. It is a tough task for the conservancy workers (who are short staffed) to segregate the rotten waste at MCC’s.

“Segregation at the MCCs should be secondary, as the garbage generators should do it themselves. The point is not to mix waste in the first place. However, as source segregation is still a pending task, unsegregated waste makes its way from houses to dump yards via MCCs,” said Vamsi.

“Source segregation activities must be scaled up so that the designed capacity of each micro composting centre may be utilised fully. Co-operation from the citizens is important,” said Mahesan.

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