AERB acknowledged that all the waste has not been collected on time because the department was preoccupied with other things. "All institutions which have an AERB licence to take radioactive material for research know the right way to dispose it. They must write to us to take the waste from their institution and dispose it at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. As we were preoccupied, we couldn’t collect it all. AERB also has a record of the ones not in use. They are lying safely in hospitals and will be collected and disposed of," secretary, AERB & director, information & technical services division, Om Pal Singh told TOI.
Almost all degree colleges offering science courses use radioactive material in their labs, with Thallium-204 and CCM-137 being the most common. These are mild and relatively less harmful when compared to what’s used in specialized sections.
A staff member of the Organic Chemistry department, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) said, "We’re not sure but we have our own radioactive waste management system. We dump the waste in a building on the campus and then I think they burn it."
Shockingly, many colleges TOI contacted had no clue about waste management. While some said they didn’t know how to go about it, others suggested their own methods. Bangalore University officials say they haven’t disposed radioactive materials ever since they started using them, that’s since installation in 1964.
"They are very mild. Once their half-life period is over, they are harmless. We keep them in their containers in one part of the store. They are never disposed of — I don’t know how to dispose it. Usually, they are supposed to be kept underground," said a professor of the Physics department, Bangalore University, Jnana Bharati.
"Usually, they are considered so harmless that in some colleges, you would find them kept in the open on the shelves. The lead container itself is very costly, so nobody bothers to buy it," he added.
At another degree college, the Physics department in-charge said he doesn’t know disposal methods. "We keep it in the department. Since they have long half-life periods, the need has never arisen. If at any stage I need to dispose it, I wouldn’t know what to do. I need to ask my seniors," he said. A professor from a college on Palace Road said, "Maybe we can tie it in a bag, put it in a garbage bin or throw them in some remote place."
To their credit, some colleges were doing it the right way — they sent back used materials to the agency whenever they placed an order for fresh stock.
SCRAPYARDS OF BANGALORE
Gowripalya, Nayandahalli and parts of City Market where all kinds of scrap lands up, are very vulnerable. Scrap dealers have no idea of the toxicity of some of the material they handle every day. Tonnes of e-waste and chemical waste are dismantled by workers who don’t use any protection gear. "We don’t know what’s radioactive and what’s not. We recover metals like copper, silver and lead every day. We know some stuff like lead and mercury could be poisonous but the dismantlers don’t know it," said a scrap dealer in Gowripalya.
From N95 masks to discarded oxygen cylinders, chemical containers, wires, TVs and computers, they deal with all kinds of waste.
Despite the hue and cry over formalizing the e-waste recycling market, most scrap dealers deal in hazardous conditions.
They told The Times of India that waste also comes from government and educational institutions, including leading science institutes, through public auctions.