LAHORE, Pakistan, (Sep. 7) IPS – Scores of children in this region of lush, green rice paddies are undergoing surgery for a crippling bone disease alleged to have been caused by industrial pollution of groundwater, in what is shaping up to be a major public health disaster.
Even as the government denies that there is any connection with local factories, environmental and public health groups warn that similar disasters are in the making elsewhere.
The government of the eastern Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, has rushed medical teams to the villages, and has announced a multi-million rupee scheme to provide safe drinking water.
Green groups and media commentators are urging the federal and provincial governments to show the same dedication to enforcing industrial pollution control laws across the country.
In the last two years, more than 500 people in the four affected villages have developed serious bone disorders, which the government says is caused by excessive — but naturally occurring — fluoride in the drinking water.
“We have identified 139 children with bone fluorosis, who will undergo corrective surgery,” said Sajid Maqbool, director of the Lahore Children’s Hospital.
According to the Pakistan Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (PCSIR), water samples from the area show fluoride levels ranging from 5.26 to 26.32 milligrams per liter.
This is far in excess of the permissible limits of 0.7 to 1.7 mgs per litre set by the World Health Organization.
Absorption of extremely high levels of fluoride damages the bones, say medical experts.
“This makes them soft, crumbly and chalky white. In later stages, this causes stiffness of joints, inability to move the spine and neurological symptoms when the spinal cord is compressed by deforming bones,” said an expert from Lahore’s Institute of Public Health.
Residents of the affected villages began displaying symptoms two years ago, but local health authorities failed to take any special measures.
“Some two years ago, our water became sour and then people began to experience pain in various parts of the body. Later, they could not even walk or stand properly,” said a shopkeeper in Kalalaanwala, the worst affected village.
“Our children were the worst hit. Their bones started to turn crooked,” he said.
Rasoolan Bibi breaks into tears when she sees her three-year-old son Irfan crying with the pain. Irfan’s shoulders have been crippled by the disease. “We have been giving him pain-relieving injections for the last year,” she said.
“The doctors at the Rural Health Center told us my son’s disease was linked to a mental problem and had advised bed rest,” she added.
It was only when a local newspaper reported the health disaster in late July that the government took notice and declared the area “calamity-hit.”
“More than 4,000 people have been checked at government and private centers and given necessary medical advice and free medicine,” said a local administration official.
While the government backs the over-fluoridation theory, many victims believe the chemicals were released by the numerous factories around their villages.
According to Kalalaanwala resident Iftikhar Ahmad, the problem began after a wire factory began dumping its waste in an open pit. He said the government did not take any action against the factory despite several complaints by the villagers.
The Punjab government’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has now ordered the closure of the factory. But the department has also cleared the factory of any responsibility for the health problems.
“We have found no substantive information which indicated that effluents from the wire manufacturing industry caused illness to the residents of Kalalaanwala,” the EPD wrote to the provincial health ministry in a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the media.
However, some scientists hint at a direct link between the health disaster and industrial pollution. Industrial effluents can cause high levels of acidity in the groundwater, they say.
This can convert the naturally occurring fluorine in the soil into fluoride, which is soluble in underground water, says a PCSIR scientist. There are leather, plastic and rexine manufacturing factories in the area.
But the government maintains that the affected villages are located in an area with high natural fluoride levels in the soil.
“High fluoride levels in sub-soil water in this area were first reported in 1940, when there were no factories there,” said Punjab Environment Minister Shafqat Mehmood.
Environmental activists and civil society groups say the incident has exposed Pakistan’s laxity in enforcing environmental safety norms for industry.
“The government must ensure implementation of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act and take measures to stop the dumping of industrial waste without treatment,” said the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Industry in Pakistan is supposed to comply with the National Environmental Quality Standards, which came into effect in July 1996. However, some factory owners argued that the government should help them to import the expensive pollution control equipment, and went to court to challenge the laws.
This year, government and industry agreed to a self-monitoring system, under which the latter would measure industrial emissions on its own and report them to the authorities.
An official of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency said that nearly all factories in Punjab were violating the national environmental norms.
The official added that environmental protection authorities lacked the human resources and equipment needed to catch the violations.
Media commentators point to weaknesses in the Environmental Protection Act of 1997. It takes up to four months to act against a factory found to be violating pollution rules.
“The legal process is often so long…by the time, an order is issued against a polluting unit, irreparable damage has already been caused,” said the leading English-language paper, the News.
The Lahore public health disaster is not the first instance of toxic poisoning. Some years ago, hundreds of people in Kasur, near Lahore, were blinded by environmental pollution from the city’s many tanneries.