If you’re in Manali, this is why you are always coughing!

Or in Ennore, for that matter. Heavy and polluted emissions from the petrochemical, thermal and fertiliser plants in these areas of north Chennai are taking a heavy toll on health of citizens. Respiratory and skin diseases are the most common.

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities

A Arumugam lives on Raman Street in Manali. For years, he has not only been fighting respiratory and skin problems himself, but also seen his neighbours do the same. “The entire street has at least one person from each house who is sick at any given point of time,” says Arumugam.

Lives in this North Chennai neighbourhood are lived in the shadows of the petrochemical and fertilizer industries in the area, with pollution from these industries causing several health issues for the residents. In and around the industrial units of Manali, the air has been found to have very high levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzene and ammonia, primarily due to the operation of petrochemical industries.

“Our children breathe in this air and cough incessantly. My youngest has wheezing and it gets so severe that she often has to miss school. We own the house here, so we do not have the option of moving out. Clean air is a right and we deserve better quality of life just like people in other parts of the city,” says an angry Shanthi K of Harikrishna Puram in Manali.

Official action is sporadic and practically ineffective. “Just last month, two units in the petrochemical factories in the area were sealed. But the industry is very large and sealing a couple of units makes no difference. We live with the impact every day,” says Shanthi.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) of Manali showed a whopping reading of 412 on January 11th, which falls into the ‘Hazardous’ category. The monitor in North Chennai shows consistently higher AQI levels as compared with other parts of the city. Industrial pollution is the major contributing factor behind these and of course, it ends up taking a big toll on the health of residents.

Local pollution and health issues

The conversation around the impact of air pollution in Chennai is usually hijacked by the argument that pollution here is not as severe as in other cities due to its location near the sea. This notion often prevents people from actively confronting the issue and taking measures to protect themselves from the ill effects of pollution.

Ronak Sutaria, Founder of Urban Sciences, an initiative focussed on building a robust air quality monitoring network in the country, says, “As far as air pollution is concerned, there are two effects – local and regional. Delhi and Kanpur suffer from both local and regional effects. Coastal cities like Chennai and Bombay suffer from local effects but not so much a regional effect. But that doesn’t mean that the harmful effects of pollution are any less here.”

Take the Ennore area in Chennai as a classic example of the fact that even with a coastal location, the air may be far from clean. The local effects must be studied more closely. “Even in coastal cities, there will be neighbourhoods that have very high levels of air pollution for specific reasons. For coastal cities we must look at local perspective to understand the effects,” says Ronak.

Pockets of localised air pollution have been found to have wide-ranging health impact on the residents in the surrounding areas. The thermal power plant in Ennore and the polluting fertilizer and petrochemical industries in Manali create an alarming situation on the ground.

Coal ash dumps in Ennore and the activities of the thermal power plant have caused many health issues for residents, ranging from irritation in the throat and eyes, runny nose, skin lesions, dry skin to respiratory illnesses, heart attack, pneumonia and lung cancer. PM2.5 levels in this area were found to be 116.8 µg/m3 on a single day in an assessment by Community Environment Monitoring, well over the national permissible limit of 40 µg/m3.

A health camp conducted in October 2017 by Huma Lung Foundation and Community Environment Monitoring among 200 participants residing close to the Vallur Thermal Power plant of Kuruvimedu in Ennore found five common afflictions: dry cough, body pain, loss of appetite, breathlessness and skin allergies. Elevated pollution levels also showed up as abnormalities in the chest X-rays of 73 participants. Malnourishment and low body mass index were common among the participants.

Shweta Narayan, Coordinator of Health Energy Initiative says, “One thing we have noticed in North Chennai, in places like Ennore, is that respiratory disorders are more allergic than infectious, caused by dust particles in the air. Fisher folk living and working in Ennore also suffer from skin diseases and respiratory disorders. Fatigue, joint pain and lack of appetite are common. There is hair loss even among the youth. There is a mental health component to all this as well, in part due to the financial burden and stress that these illnesses cause among the people.”

Similarly, a study by the Health Energy Initiative in October 2018 in Sepakkam showed the impact of living close to the TANGEDCO thermal power plant and coal ash pond. Respondents suffered a clear deterioration in health after operations started in the area. Coal ash and fly ash from the thermal power plant cause breathlessness, skin lesions and skin allergies, particularly among children. Workers in the industry also complain of chronic stomach ache, fever and headaches.

Far-reaching repercussions

At a city level too, the impact of air pollution on the health of Chennaiites is growing increasingly pronounced. Dr Vijaychandran, Pulmonologist at the Institute of Thoracic Medicine and Balaji Chest Clinic, notes the change in trends. He estimates that close to 50% of the cases that he has handled in the last year have been patients who have been suffering because of unhealthy air. The issues have ranged from mild allergy and asthma to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The effect, he notes, has been particularly severe among youngsters. Anecdotally, he perceives Bangalore to have fewer cases of asthma than Chennai.

Meanwhile, among the people themselves, a quiet resignation has become their way of life. Even as the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board acts on instances of violation, those residing close to industrial units continue to bear the brunt of the operation of these polluting industries in their midst. This, of course, is in addition to suffering the ill effects of regular vehicular emissions and pollution related to construction activities, in respect of which they share common ground with the rest of the city.

“There’s been a high level of industrial expansion in Chennai. We cannot control things like industrial emission or construction activity. But the harm to our health is the price that we pay for such development. There must be concerted effort to reduce emissions, both by the public and the government,” says Dr Vijaychandran.

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities, and explores the root causes for air pollution and solutions for improving air quality in Bengaluru and Chennai. This series is supported with a grant from Climate Trends.

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