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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The challenge of hazardous waste

The radiation leak in the capital of India origin has been traced to Delhi University . The radioactive material belongs to machine called ‘Gammacell’ , which was decommissioned in 1985 and then auctioned in February 2010, to some scrap dealer. 

According to rules, before decommissioning , the university should have informed Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) who would have taken the machine to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai for formally decommissioning the machine. Perhaps, it did not happen. 

It is also said that there are no guidelines for universities for handling of such potentially harmful material though the department of atomic energy (DAE) says such guidelines are there. It is also learnt that the university did not even have a trained radiation safety officer (RSO). 

The AERB has probed 16 such cases since 2000 across the country. It’s only when some tragedy occurs, shock waves are sent through the corridors of power and things are forgotten later. That is why calamities keep on occurring with greater damage every time. 

Hazardous waste has been generated for quite some time due to things like dismantling of ships at Alang (Gujarat), harmful discharges from our industries, hospitals and nuclear reactors, etc. 

More worrisome is the generation of e-waste in huge quantity. Soon, we would also face the problem of disposal of fused compact florescent lamps (CFLs) as their use is rising fast. Are we aware we imported 6.4 million tonnes and generated 5.9 million tonnes of hazardous waste domestically in 2009, and on the whole it has increased 48% during the last three years. 

Talking specifically about e-waste ( mobile phones/chargers, remotes, CDs, headphones , batteries monitors, printers. CPUs, LCD/ plasma TVs, refrigerators and air-conditioners , etc), the country is sitting on a pile of about 1,50,000 tonnes of e-waste and is expected to grow to 8,00,000 tonnes by 2012. About 12,000 tonnes of e-waste is generated in Delhi alone annually. 

A UN report has labelled India as the second largest e-waste generator in Asia. It is the unorganised sector prospering in slums and industrial areas, which have become the hotbed for recycling e-waste producing harmful gases loaded with lead, mercury and cadmium. Ideally, this job should be carried out in high-tech factories that comply with stringent health and environmental regulations. 

Regarding, hazardous waste created from damaged CFLs, etc, it should be known that 255 million CFLs were sold throughout the country in 2009 and the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) is now launching ‘Bachat Lamp Yojana’ , aimed at providing CFLs in 20 crore households in India by 2012. 

Each of these lamps contain about three to13 mg of mercury in India (in US and EU it is only 1 mg), which is extremely hazardous and there is no proper disposal system in place yet. Do we know that mercury affects the central nervous system, kidneys and our immune system? 

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