Apr 13, 2010
While the police continue with their investigations regarding the presence of radioactive material in a Delhi scrap market post a fire accident, there is no monitoring of such waste at a municipal level. Radioactive waste is not even mentioned in any of the ministry rules relating to e-waste disposal.
While the police continue to look into how radioactive material made its way to Delhi’s Mayapuri market, there is no monitoring at the municipal level on how to prevent pilferage. Mayapuri, experts point out, is a known dumping site for e-waste. The radioactive Cobalt-60, found at the shop of a metal scrap dealer, may just be the tip of an iceberg.
Although the Bio Medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 1998 list a number of hospital-generated wastes -- the substance found at Mayapuri is suspected to have come from medical equipment -- the rules do not include radioactive waste.
While the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) has a mandate for monitoring hazardous substances; that too does not include radioactive waste or material. This means there is no agency to take responsibility for any radioactive material found at a scrap market.
“Since the accident has taken place we need to know who is to be fined for this. The medical superintendent of the medical unit has to be held responsible for the correct disposal of such machines. We need to have a proper mechanism to ensure medical waste is treated properly,” says Bharati Chaturvedi, from the think-tank Chintan.
“It isn’t difficult to gauge the increasing magnitude of the electronic waste problem threatening India,” says Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxic Links, a non-profit organisation. Nearly 40,000-50,000 tonnes of used electronic equipment find their way into India unnoticed every month, much of which is being routed to illegal electronic dumping grounds every month.
Electronic hardware contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, besides hazardous chemicals like brominated flame retardants that cause major damage to human health. One just needs to visit the numerous lanes in parts of central Bangalore, or Mandoli (an industrial estate on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border) that have emerged as so-called ‘scrap yards’ to gauge the enormity of the problem, says Sinha.
“Men, women and even minor boys are seen tearing apart personal computers, monitors and other electronic hardware with their bare hands, sifting through the components. The reusable parts are segregated, soldering is done with lead whereby its hazardous fumes are directly inhaled,” he adds.
The remaining waste is broken down and incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids that continuously spew out polluted smoke. Whatever can’t be incinerated is broken down by chisels and hammers and dumped into the nearest sewer or garbage bin, from where it goes to the landfill. And for doing this ‘dirty work’, adult labourers are paid barely US$ 2 per day.
Unlike in developed countries, there are no set norms for handling electronic waste; also, cheap labour not only makes disposal cost-effective and profitable for local traders it also encourages developed countries to push their electronic waste to countries like India,” Sinha continues.
Radioactive waste: danger unheeded
• The Bio Medical Waste Rules 1998 include waste such as chemical waste (from laboratory cultures, etc) and infectious waste (vaccines, human and animal cell culture used in research, and infectious agents).
• The Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules include mining waste (mica, sulphate), heavy metals, metal ash from photographic film, plastic waste, etc.
There is no mention of radioactive waste in either of the two sets of rules. Meanwhile, experts are keeping their fingers crossed regarding the upcoming draft proposal on Electronic Waste Handling and Management Rules being readied by the environment ministry.
‘Ministry not responsible’
The much-hyped draft proposal on Electronic Waste Handling and Management Rules, under the Environment Protection Act, by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is expected to be ready by the end of this month.
It empowers state pollution control boards to register importers of waste. This includes other possible contaminants like cadmium, lead, mercury, photographic waste, mining waste, and plastic compounds. But there are still no precautionary notes on radioactive waste.
A senior MoEF official said all radioactive material is to be dealt with by the Department of Atomic Energy, and that the MoEF would not take any responsibility for it.
Not enough manpower: DPCC
Several kinds of scrap are used and dismantled at Mayapuri market. The DPCC, however, says it does not have adequate manpower to make surprise visits to such markets to prevent possible cases of contamination. Further, the board says it is not responsible for radioactive waste.
“We do not have enough inspectors to conduct surprise visits in Mayapuri. But we do check when applications are put in for new industries. We also act on complaints,” DPCC chairman A K Ambasht says.
But this is for all kinds of hazardous material, not radioactive waste. “Radioactive waste is looked at by the Atomic Board. We are not supposed to intervene in this. We look at other kinds of waste,” Ambasht says.
India, a dumping yard for the world’s e-waste
The figures obtained from one major port alone, from April 2009 to December 2009, reveal that large numbers of used computer parts, including the obsolete cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, with hazardous amounts of lead, made their way into India from South Asia, Finland and the Middle East.
This apart, 5,761 old and used printers were imported from various destinations including the US, Canada, France and Finland, besides the Middle East and South Asia. Other major computer parts include 2,868 assorted CPUs, 3,750 assorted hard disks, 2,156 assorted motherboards and 2,134 assorted computer systems PIV, besides used power supply systems.
Of these, the import of CRT monitors is a major cause for concern. CRT monitors make use of leaded glass that contains nearly 2-2.5 kg of the metal.
The hazardous business of recycling
CRT monitors are obsolete in major parts of the world, including India; they’ve been supplanted by LCD and plasma screen monitors. The glass in these monitors has found its way even to items of everyday use like bangles, etc, as there is no sustainable technology to separate lead from glass, points out Priti Mahesh, project manager, e-waste, Toxic Links.