A matter of survival
Ram Nath Chandeliya, Former Member of Delhi Metropolitan Council
Our relation to the environment is the same as fish to water. Any degradation, therefore, raises a question mark on the continued survival of human specie on the planet.
Environment is the most important subject in terms of survival value of social impacts. On the occasion of World Environment Day let us understand, what is our environment? The definition of the environment is complex. The environment is a state of dynamic equilibrium where actions and interactions of different ingredients and effects of every changing factor are contained to form a firm interrelationship amongst each other. It is influenced by outside and inside forces and factors, such as abiotic and biotic community such as grass land, desert, and forest eco-systems, etc.
It is not that we, in this generation are the first to think about environmental protection. Earliest reference is to be found as early as 2000 BC in Babylonian laws which forbade selling of contaminated grains. Ancient Greeks recognized linkage between disease and overcrowding. (Today, with density of population the natural barrier has disappeared). Romans showed concern for sanitation, built aqueducts and sewers some of which are still in use. Indus River Civilization has many evidences of sanitary living and concern in the society of that era.
Cause of Environmental degradation:
Waste is the root of all types of environmental degradation. Generation of waste is an activity and population related, and the humans are the biggest culprit who generate waste to the maximum and leave it uncared. We have hardly learnt anything from the nature. Everything is cyclic in nature-be it oxygen cycle, nitrogen cycle, life and death, or the energy cycle. Therefore, the basic rule should be bring the waste to environmentally acceptable form where it can still be useful to the environment, or not be as damaging as in the original form. After all, the nature also converts carbon dioxide emission to oxygen by inherent action. Therefore, there are many lessons to learn from the nature. "Healthy environment is essential for healthy life" since degraded environment will have adverse effect on the health.
Environmental and human health, therefore, has two dimensions one the health of the environment itself, and the other the effects it causes on the human health. "The control of all those factors in man's physical environment which exercises a deleterious effect on his physical development, health or survival; and health in this context is said to mean a state of complete physical, mental, and social well being".
WHO has defined health as 'a state of complete physical, mental, social, and spiritual well being, and not merely absence of disease or infirmity’. Significantly the pollutants in our environment have serious effects on the health, thus the clean environment play vital role in our life.
We must be remember that most of the pollutants are neurotoxin and have adverse effect on the brain also. Therefore, one has to consider environmental pollutants seriously. Human society has always been economy-driven. Man has advanced through 'hunting economy' to 'gathering economy' to 'agrarian economy' to industrial economy' to IT economy', but during the past decades of progress in the field of science and technology, we have damaged our environment to the extent of irreparable losses.
To protect the environment, evolution of environmental laws in the recent history started in the UK. In the first decade of the 19th century there was great public hue and cry, but in vain. People whose lot wanted improvements did not have political clout and ability to organize themselves, and to bring pressure to bear upon the law makers. In the 19th century, Sir Robert Peel, (himself a mill owner) introduced a bill which later became the 'Health and Morals of the apprentices Act 1802'. Factory Act of 1933 for the first time empowered the inspectors to enter premises, inspect sanitary conditions, and demand a satisfactory system of schooling. Then, was the Liverpool Sanitary Act-1846 in this, council was empowered for the first time these responsibilities. An officer was appointed known as the 'Officer of Health & Inspector of Nuisance', and a 'Surveyor'. This Act became a law in 1846. There were many other measures initiated to bring in effective legislation, and the process stabilized with the 'Clean Air Act-1956'. Rules regarding bio-medical waste in UK (a later addition) - 'Health and Safety at Work Act - 1974' covers handling and disposal of bio-medical waste. This rule applies to all health care facility and activity in the UK. Provisions require assurance of safe handling, transportation and disposal of clinical waste.
In the USA, Massachusetts was the first state to take legal steps to ensure environmental health as early as in 1848. National Environmental Pollution Act was passed in 1969. Clean Air Act was enacted in 1963 by the congress which was later amended in 1970 that forced automobile manufacturers to install catalytic converts. Many other acts have been enacted such as Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Resources Conservation and Recovery Act. All these regulate the solid waste disposal. In India the awareness can be said to stretch back to 1972, when for the first time India was represented by the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Her famous statement that "Poverty and Population are the greatest polluters" still reverberates in mind. Though criticized at that time, but her statement is still relevant and valid even today. Due to abnormal population growth, industrialization, urbanization and modernized lifestyle, waste generation per capita has increased. Therefore, the abnormal population growth remains one of the most important factors leading to low level of awareness and rural to urban migration has damage the environmental conditions bad to worse in India and China.
Though the environment subject could not find its proper place in the agenda of development but even then we should be satisfied that Indian Parliament took the cognizance of the environmental conditions and passed the Water Act 1974, Air Act 1981 and Environmental Protection Act in 1986.
Let us understand what are the major pollutants in the environment -
a) Physical pollutants are particulate matter pollution. On an average particulate matter pollution far exceeds the limits laid down by the WHO in any urban locality in India.
b) Chemical pollutants are lead, arsenic, mercury, nickel, chemical disinfectants used in health care institutions, organic gases formed in incineration, inorganic gases in excess. Metallic waste has polluted the aquifer, soil, and entered the food-chain. Even in sub clinical concentration in the body these do bring about changes in behavior, etc. Chemical pollutants start affecting from the womb itself as most of these pollutants cross placental barrier. A lot of them have worse impending effect.
c) Biological i.e. bacterial, viral & mutated variants has the potential of causing wide spread infection to all those who come in contact with the infected person. Spread of infection by improper disposal of bio-medical waste is a matter of great concern today. Bio-medical waste gets mixed with municipal waste thus posing greater danger to the population at large. Improper disposal of bio-medical waste that is the waste keeps on lying for days together in the health care premises, proliferation, mutation and desiccation. In fact war between bacteria and antibiotics is an ongoing race. No doubt the nature is yet to reveal its best defense but for the time being it appears that the bacteria are having an upper hand.
Which are the sources of environment pollutants?
Radioactive waste is from atomic plants, from the medical treatment and investigation centers etc.
2) Municipal and Household
3) Bio-Medical or Health Care establishments
What are the causes of environmental pollutants?
Industrial Revolution, in fact led to a mass scale waste generation, and along with it also allowed to develop concerns. There are many other sources such as natural disasters, constructions, etc., but we will limit the discussion only on some aspects relevant to human health in a direct fashion. Waste generation per capital depends on population explosion which has a direct effect on the quantum of waste.
Moreover, every human being is a small factory where inputs are nature's resources and output is energy for living activities, and generation of waste, including carbon dioxide-a GHG. An average human being breathes 22,000 in a day and emits 200 ml. of CO2 every time. Thus GHG emission by the nearly 13% increasing population of third world will be a massive addition to the GHG. Rural to urban migration is a routine phenomenon these days. Apart from socio-economic changes it results in reducing the natural gap thus facilitating spread of communicable disease. Living lifestyle itself is an activity. More and more industrialization to achieve higher perceived standard of living at the cost of resources of the nature is a bane of the modern world.
Sustainable development remains a concept. Pollution affects the health where prime factors are nature of pollutant, its concentration, duration, susceptibility of the person exposed, and age group. It is pertinent to know that children are more susceptible as they consume more of food, water, and air (volume to volume wise). A child has higher basic metabolic rate, so has higher per minute ventilation. A child drinks about 2.5 times more water per unit of body weight as compared to adults, which means their exposure to pollutants, if the water is polluted would be 2.5 times greater. A child also consumes more calories in weight to weight ratio. Children have much larger body surface area in proportion to weight, and thus stand at greater risk of cutaneous absorption of pollutants. Thus children are more at risk to the effects of pollution.
Urban Air pollution
The government had consistently failed to tackle rising levels of chemicals in the atmosphere in cities. Big hole of nearly 26 million sq. kms in Ozone Layer over Antarctica is an outcome of such CFL (Chlorofloro Carbons) emissions. It is a matter of serious concern that high levels of urban air pollution cut short life expectancy more than the radiation exposure but even than we do not care. In fact air pollution in major cities may be more damaging to health than the radiation exposure suffered by survivors of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The health risks associated with air pollution and passive smoking appear more severe.
The immediate effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs led to approximately 210,000 deaths in the two cities. However, radiation exposures experienced by the most exposed group of survivors led to an average loss of life expectancy significantly lower than that caused by severe obesity or active smoking.
Many Pests, Weeds and Trees are the threat to Environment in India.
There are many documented instances of how alien pests have come into cause great damage to plants and animals in India. The best example is Parthenium, widely referred to as Congress grass, which was introduced in the late 1950s through wheat imports from the US. The grass has gone on to become a serious threat to the ecosystem of all over the northern states. Not only does it occupy vast tracts of otherwise arable land, it also has emerged as a grave allergen in the environment.
It is imperative to create a national agency for interception and management of invasive biotic, which will be responsible for surveillance and development of an early warning system for any outbreak of alien bio-agents or toxins. Separately, a proposal for setting up a national institute for emerging and exotic diseases has already been approved recently by the government.
Nobody is serious about what they export and many countries often want to dump infected goods on us at cheap prices.
It is also known that a majority of the seed-borne viruses in pulses are foreign in origin and came in through import consignments. Recently 15 dangerous weeds were observed in imported wheat. Today they severely affect India's yield of pulses. Other recent cases include the Coffee Berry Borer that came in from Sri Lanka into the Nilgiri plantations in 1990, the Cotton Leaf Curl Virus that came in from Pakistan in the late 1990s and the Tomato Leaf Curl Virus which became rampant in Kolar, Karnataka.
In the case of animals’ disease like bovine viral diarrhea, malignant catarrh fever and avian flu are diagnosed in recent years in imported livestock and poultry. "If the gene shift were to occur resulting in avian flue attaining the ability to transmit itself from human to human, this country is going to be hit severely because we still do not have the requisite surveillances mechanism for early detection and infrastructure to handle such an outbreak.
The term bio-terrorism is associated with outbreaks of human diseases caused due to an intentional release of dreaded diseases such as anthrax. It also includes agro-terrorism that refers to the deliberate introduction of a plant of animal disease aimed at crippling a country's food security. Security and agricultural experts fear that India, given its agrarian base and varied ecosystems, is vulnerable to this threat. This is because related security measures are the best low. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a natural outbreak and a deliberately causes attack.
It may be a threat of tomorrow. The nature of terrorism evolves constantly. We therefore have to be prepared for any eventuality.
Hence, to protect the Indian environment from alien pests needs alien bio-agonies & toxins it is imperative to create a national agency for interception and management
Water hyacinth in India has now appeared almost all over the country even in village. It grows all year round, and is costing municipal corporations a lot of money to keep their waterways free.
The common water hyacinth is a plant that has traveled far. It originated in the Amazon basin. This plant, which proliferates rapidly, has caused a series of ecological and health problems. The thick layer that a mature plant creates on the surface of water bodies can be up to two meters high and this cuts off light and oxygen affecting the flora and fauna. Water that it sucks up then evaporates and this leads to an increased loss of water. It creates a habitat for insects that carry diseases. It hinders activities such as fishing and marine transport. It is now being considered as a formidable threat to bio-diversity.
Biofuel and the case for caution
Biofuels such as ethanol can help cut substantially both oil imports and carbon emissions. In the long term, the diversion of productive farmland for biofuel crops cannot be ruled out, and such diversion can only be at the cost of food and fuel wood. The rush to switch to energy derived from plants can drive deforestation, push small farmers off their land, and heighten poverty. Cuba's President, Fidel Castro, has registered these concerns clearly and powerfully.
There is no doubt that the damages caused by industrial progress, or human activity cannot be reversed; indeed it can hardly be arrested. But it is certainly possible to reach a state of development where environment also has a chance to survive.
In the words of the Mahatma Gandhi: "The earth has enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed.
This is a grim picture. But the human beings have survived many challenges, and will come out winner again. Lost wisdom will have to be rediscovered to strengthen rural world. All of us will have to understand the environment a little better. The children of today will have to be inculcated with the survival techniques in the third millennium.
About the writer :
Ram Nath Chandeliya
Former Member of Delhi Metropolitan Council.
Nominate by EPA USA for Ozone Layer Protection Award-2008