In May this year, Masilamani (41), a resident of a housing board colony bang opposite the Kodungiyur dumpyard, woke up with violent coughs and breathlessness. A visit to the doctor later in the day confirmed that he had acute bronchitis. He was surprised because he had no previous history of the disease. Hailing from a fishing family, Masilamani squarely blamed his condition on the constant smoke that emanated from the dumpyard. Given the mounting evidence that backs the claim, it might not be unsubstantiated.
A study conducted by Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM), a Chennai-based environment group, on the quality of air around the dumpyard has confirmed what everybody knew for ages - pollutant levels remain at dangerously high levels, making the residents prone to chronic respiratory and other diseases.
As part of the study, air samples were taken from the house of Perambur MLA A Soundarrajan in February and sent to a recognised laboratory in the US. The lab report said levels of Respirable Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) were 131 microgram per cubic metre - more than double the prescribed Indian standards of 60 micrograms per cubic metre and more than triple that set by World Health Organisation.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), a government body, dust particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size (PM 2.5) are referred to as “fine particles”. The agency’s website says: The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.
“Remember, everybody, including children in the locality, are exposed to such high levels of pollutants,” points out Soudararajan. PM levels zoom when there is a fire because the smoke expands their reach, a fact validated by a second sample of the same study analysed in the US.
Besides dust, the air in Kodungiyur were heavy with metals, such as lead and manganese, considered neuro toxins when exposed in high levels. “Traces of nickel were also found, which is carcinogenic in nature, according to the WHO,” says Nagaratna, a resident.
Kodungiyur is not an isolated case. In Coimbatore, the Vellalore dumpyard fire on October 6 led to an air quality study which threw up similar data - PM levels hovering around 130 micrograms per cubic metre. Early this year, studies around the Pallikaranai dumpyard found excessive levels of at least five times the prescribed limit of carbon dioxide. A previous study there pointed to the presence of 27 different chemicals in the air, with 15 exceeding standard levels. Butadine, Benzene and Chloromethane, all cancer-causing agents, exceeded levels by hundreds of times.