Fluoride Action Network

Bone disease spurs Pakistan to environmental action

Source: Environmental News Network | November 20th, 2000 | by Muddassir Rizvi
Location: Pakistan

Water supplies tainted with excessive levels of fluoride in the village of Kalalanwala, Pakistan, may be the cause of a bone disease.
The right to a clean environment is an alien concept in Pakistan, a nation of 135 million people. Although laws exist to control pollution and environmental degradation, enforcement remains weak in a cash-strapped country squeezed by more than US$35 billion in international debt.

Against this backdrop, industry, clustered in urban and semi-urban areas surrounded by densely populated, low-income localities, continues to pollute the environment with impunity.

But a recent government decision to enact clear-cut Environment Impact Assessment guidelines that new industrial companies will have to follow promises to change all that.

“Nobody can now set up any industrial unit without a no-objection certificate from environmental protection agencies,” said Asif Shujja Khan, director general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are considering a proposal to link the electricity, gas and water connections to new industrial units with the issuance of a no-objection certificate from the environmental protection agency,” said an official of Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment.

The EIA guidelines come in the wake of a recent disclosure of a mysterious disease in a village on the outskirts of Lahore in the Punjab province. The bone disease has left hundreds of residents, mostly children, crippled.

The disease has been blamed on industrial units in the vicinity that have pumped waste into open areas for years without penalty.

One mother of three little girls cries when she notes that her daughters now have deformed knees and hunched shoulders and may have to live with this condition all their lives.

The villagers believe that local factories, especially the wire manufacturing industry across the main road in the village, are responsible for their woes. Their complaints to local authorities about factory pollution were never heeded.

“We were like any other village in the area until a couple of years ago. Then our water developed sour taste. People started to experience pain in various parts of their bodies, including the nose, throat and stomach. Then the pain became so unbearable that people couldn’t even walk or stand properly, and their bones showed signs of deformities and twisting,” said one shopkeeper. “This all followed the establishment of the wire manufacturing factory.”

Government doctors who visited the village after complaints surfaced in the papers this summer diagnosed villagers with skeletal fluorosis, a disease caused by excessive levels of fluoride in drinking water.

A drinking water analysis conducted by the Pakistan Council for Science and Industrial Research showed that samples collected from the area contained a fluoride content ranging from 5.26 to 26.32 milligrams per liter. “This is way too high as compared to the World Health Organization’s standard of 0.6 to 1.7 milligram per liter,” said Afia Ashraf, director of PCSIR’s environment lab in Lahore. She opined that the absorption of fluoride in drinking water could have been triggered by the acidification of aquifers around the factories.

The wire-manufacturing factory was established in 1994 without an environmental impact assessment. “This factory passes the wire through an anti-corrosion chemical process involving strong acids such as phosphoric acid, hydrochloric acid or hydrofluoric acid,” said Mohammad Hanif, a chemical analyst. “This acidic waste is drained out in an open pit, which could pollute the underground water.”

This is by no means the first industry-related health or environmental incident to hit Pakistan. The past two decades have seen several other cases. In 1997 a chlorine leak in the low-income district of Baja Lines in Lahore left 20 people dead and scores of others severely sick.

The country’s capital, Islamabad, is held hostage by industrial pollution. Gaseous emissions from an increasing number of steel re-rolling mills and particulate matter from marble chip factories continue to affect residents, who complain of various respiratory and eye ailments. “We are trying to enforce the National Environmental Quality Standards on these factories,” said an official of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency.

A mysterious disease in the Punjab region of Pakistan has been linked to industrial pollution. The disease has left hundreds of residents, mostly children, crippled.

Although environmental standards came into force in 1996, the government has not monitored a stubborn industrial sector for compliance. Local industries say the government should provide them with credit opportunities and impose a zero-duty regime for the import of machinery required for pollution reduction.

The government’s financial managers refuse, despite recommendations by officials responsible for preserving the country’s environment.

There is virtually no check on some 8,000 industrial units in the country that are contributing to high rates of pollution. Environmentalists cite conditions in Karachi, where discharges of all manner of waste are severely affecting water and air quality, as a particularly pathetic situation

Pakistan has also become a dumping ground for the dirtiest of dirty fuels, clogging already polluted urban centers with motor vehicle pollution. State and multinational fuel companies are marketing various grades of gasoline that contain high levels of lead. One of the major stakeholders in the oil market is state-owned Pakistan State Oil. Its international competitors are Shell and Caltex.

A Pakistan Medical Research Council survey found dangerously high lead levels in the blood of schoolchildren. High lead levels can stunt mental development.

Environmentalists believe that industrial pollution and environmental degradation can only be tackled if the government puts the environment at the center of all economic planning.

“The attention is too much on specific projects and not on a good policy framework reflective of the general situation,” said one environmentalist.