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Kalpakkam’s forgotten people

by C Shivakumar, 20 October 2008

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Kalpakkam’s forgotten people have a tale to tell

FORTY-five-year-old Sundarammal is in immense pain. Sitting beside a pile of dry fish, she touches a large lump on her neck.

“I do not know how this came. I got it maybe six or seven years ago,” she says, and asks the doctor for some medicine to relieve the pain.

Sundarammal is, in fact, suffering from thyroid cancer. And crucially, she is a resident of Meiyoor Kuppam, some five km from the Madras Atomic Power Station and Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant.

“Her cancer is in an advanced stage. She can survive at the most for five years,” says Dr V Pugazhendi, an activist belonging to Doctors for Safer Environment (DOSE).

This is not the only case. Residents say scores of people in the fortress town of Sadras and villages near the campus have died, some of cancer and others of ‘mysterious illnesses’.

“The government,” says Dr Pugazhendi, “has so far conducted no health survey though the local area of MAPS, measuring about 4,000 sq km of landmass, which includes a portion of the Chennai metropolitan region. It has a population of 10 million.” More than one-third of women in the age group of 15-40 years have been affected by thyroid enlargement or autoimmune thyroid disorders in surrounding areas of the plant, says Dr Pugazhendi, who has done a study on thyroid incidence in the region along with Dr Conrad Mary, Dr R Ramesh and V T Padmanabhan.

They are all part of DOSE.

There are three confirmed cases of thyroid cancer in the study, he says. And there may be others. He says this is mostly due to routine release of radioactive gases, including Iodine 131, in the air and sea from the Kalpakkam nuclear plant. But this is not reflected in the government Environment Survey Laboratory (ESL) data.

“My study is the only one in India which has confirmed that radioactive Iodine is linked to thyroid cancer and autoimmune thyroiditis,” says Dr Pugazhendi.

The ESL Kalpakkam had found after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in April 1986 that the incidence of thyroid-related diseases in goats had registered an increase as a result of feeding on grass laced with Iodine-131.

A report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says that the routine release of radionuclides from Kalpakkam has been high in comparison to the release from facilities in other countries.

Kalpakkam houses four nuclear reactors, two waste-reprocessing plants, a centralised waste management facility and a tritium plant. The seawater intake structure for the reactors is located 420 metres offshore. A 405-metre-long approach jetty that connects the intake system to the shore also supports a discharge pipeline for low-level radioactive effluents.

“Aquatic organisms display considerable ability to accumulate trace elements as well as radionuclides from water even in exceedingly small concentrations,” says M V Ramanna, a physicist, quoting a study done by M A R Iyengar of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), along with three other experts.

The low-level radioactive wastes released into the sea increase the risk of cancer, says Ramanna, who is also a senior fellow in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development in Bangalore. This is dangerous for people living near beaches and dependent on sea food for a large part of their diet.

Dr Pugazhendi says the Department of Atomic Energy stopped releasing data on the effluent emissions once the Kalpakkam Atomic Fuel Reprocessing Plant went on stream in 1998. IGCAR officials declined to comment immediately.

According to UNSCEAR, “Relatively large quantities of radioactive materials are involved at the fuel reprocessing stage. The radionuclides are freed from their contained state as the fuel is brought into solution, and the potential for release in waste discharges is greater than other stages of the fuel cycle. Routine releases have been largely in liquid effluents to the sea.” The radioactive effluents may have affected the livelihood of fishermen in the coastal areas surrounding plant. “This was an area which was rich in lobsters, crabs, shrimp and other varieties of fish. Now we rarely get any,” says Nagooran, a fisherman in Sadras.

But the fishermen have no choice. They still venture out to sea. The catch is their only source of livelihood. It keeps the wolf from the door, but then nobody knows whether and how toxic the fish are, and most end up in Chennai markets.

Some are dried and sold as chicken feed, says Dr Pugazhendi.

A fisherman says: “They are probably toxic but we can’t catch anything else. And there is hardly any money coming in at the moment.” Among the workers at the plant, Dr Pugazhendi says three persons died of multiple myeloma in 2002-2003, a rare bone cancer that is linked to nuclear radiation. This was denied by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay.

The death rate due to myeloma is 2.4 per one lakh population per annum in the Chennai area alone. The Kalpakkam area has a population of about 25,000. So three myeloma deaths within a span of 18 months is considered statistically significant by cancer specialists because it is four times the normal.

Dr Pugazhendi has another case. Some years ago, a 24-year-old temporary worker died of colon cancer. According to doctors, it is unusual for patients at contract this cancer at such an early age. For this and other reasons, he says “we need a thorough study of the radiation levels and their effects in the area”.

In another worrying indication, several cases have been reported of congenital defects and mental retardation. A DOSE study revealed 12 cases of polydactyly below the age of 15 in the coastal areas in a radius of 16 km.

Dr Pugazhendi rules out consanguinity and parental history in all the cases. “Polydactyly and other malformations are usually associated with the exposure of the foetus to radiation,” he says.

As the waves hit the shores, the black sand is visible. “The sand here is rich in monazite but we suspect it is also highly toxic,”says Dr Pugazhendi.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know the levels of toxicity and whether it has increased after the radiation levels. We don’t have the equipment for a proper series of tests. There is no safe radiation dosage, so we must have a full study.” M Hussain of Pudupatnam, whose daughter is suffering from autoimmune thyroiditis, is clear about the first step.

“The government should conduct a health survey in the region.

We have faith in the government and it should act. And I hope it will not be too late for my daughter.”

Too many fingers

Polydactyly, also known as hyperdactyly, is a congenital physical anomaly consisting of extra fingers or toes.

When each hand or foot has six digits, it is sometimes called sexdactyly, hexadactyly or hexadactylism.

The extra digit is usually a small piece of soft tissue; occasionally it may contain bone without joints; rarely it may be a complete, functioning digit. Polydactyly may be passed down (inherited) in families.

This trait involves only one gene that can cause several variations. It also happens due to radiation exposure during pregnancy.

Dangerous fallout

Iodine-131 is an artificially produced fission byproduct resulting from nuclear weapons, above-ground nuclear testing, and nuclear reactor operations.

It is found in the gaseous and liquid waste streams of nuclear power plants, but is not released into the environment during normal reactor operations.

Iodine in food is absorbed by the body and preferentially concentrated in the thyroid where it is needed for the functioning of that gland. When Iodine 131 is present in high levels in the environment from radioactive fallout, it can be absorbed through contaminated food, and will also accumulate in the thyroid. As it decays, it may cause damage to the thyroid gland. The primary risk from exposure to high levels of Iodine 131 is the chance occurrence of radiogenic thyroid cancer in later life. Other risks include the possibility of non-cancerous growths and thyroiditis.

Iodine-131 can also cause exposure by ingestion (consumption of green leafy vegetables, drinking water, fish and shellfish containing the substance), as well as exposure by inhalation and external exposure from ground deposition.

Deadly exposure

Ajith (name changed) was offered Rs 3,000 to work as rigger in the Kalpakkam nuclear plant. It was a lucrative bargain. His job was to clean up the reactor during shutdown.

“After two months my contract expired,” says Ajith, an employee of Tech-Sharp, a Chennai based company which has taken the contract, hardly unaware that he had exposed himself to radiation.

“I later worked in Rawabhata nuclear plant,” says Ajith.

This time the contract was sourced through Bangalorebased Avasarala Technologies. After five months of working in both the nuclear plants, Ajith, the lone breadwinner of the family, is suffering from cancer. He has been diagnosed with carcinoma rectum by Chengalpattu Medical College Hospital. “We have shelled out more than Rs one lakh on his treatment and are living in debt. We can’t afford his treatment anymore, the government should help us,” says his brother.

“Most of the contract workers are hardly provided with any compensation and many of them are illiterate,” says Dr V Pugazhendi of Doctors for Safer Environment.

“In the US after much protests from atomic workers, the government has passed a law covering a list of cancers for which atomic workers might seek compensation.

Why can’t we have the same law in India,” wonders Dr Pugazhendi. Meanwhile, the nuclear plant is recruiting migrant workers instead of locals for doing the cleaning job in the nuclear reactor. They are mostly from Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam and Andhra Pradesh.

“The recruitment is just to avoid the blame as locals can be tracked but migrants can’t,” he alleges.

— shivakumarshreya at gmail.com

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