Contaminated groundwater: Villagers suffer from health hazards

Capstone Environment Health Shahpur Taluk

Though uranium mining was supposed to stop in 2007, it still continues in Gogi making people suffer.

Gogi, Shahpur: Coming out of his old single bedroom house in the corner of the Gogi village, Husensa S, 42, drags his right leg to walk forward, but as he fails to do so, he takes help from his elder brother. Using sign language, he tries to talk but in vain. He was an auto driver before he became paralysed four years ago. A year later, he lost his ability to speak. Shainsha, 45, his brother, blames the groundwater for all that Husensa has to face.  Shainsha has skin disease, his body covered in white patches, due to the consumption of uranium-contaminated water. 

They are not alone. Several people in and around Gogi, 560 km away from Bengaluru, suffer from health problems including joint pain, skin diseases, infertility, and kidney damage. Children are born with disabilities because their mothers consumed contaminated water during their pregnancy. “Nine out of ten people have knee and joint pain and skin diseases,” said Dr. Basuvaraj N at the Gogi hospital, making it the signature health issue in this part of the taluk.

In the study by VT Padmanabhan and Joseph Makkolil, they have estimated an internal radiation dose of 1619 microsievert or 1.62 millisievert from the water in Gogi. It is 16 times the WHO’s reference dose level and the water is unfit for human consumption.

The groundwater stored in a well, and supplied through pipes to houses, has a high content of Uranium.  Residents use this water for drinking and for household work.  People in these villages are so used to drinking the contaminated water that they refuse to use the filtered water as the groundwater is easily available without incurring any expenses.

Though everyone knows that the mine is the reason for health issues, none of the villagers know how dangerous the contamination can be for them. The answer is: If Thorium-230 and Radium-226, radio-active particles which are present in uranium mine tailings (waste by-products of uranium mining), are not controlled properly, they can contaminate the local environment under certain conditions, mainly by seeping into the water resources leading to the risk of cancer from drinking water. Also, the radio-toxicity in uranium can last for thousands of years posing severe health hazards to both people and the environment. Even though the life of a radon particle is only about four days, it can still travel to about 100km, get absorbed in soil or water, and pose a hazard. 

No solution is available globally to deal with such hazardous waste generated during uranium mining.

Munni Shah Begum, 58, another resident of Gogi, faces the same plight as that of Husensa. Five years ago, her fingers became crippled making it impossible for her to use her hands to physical work.  She feels bad because she has to depend on others for everything. “I have to suffer this till my death,” she said. “I drink the groundwater even though they say it is dangerous.”

And it is not easy for these villagers to get medical help for their ailments. There is only one government hospital in Gogi for seven villages. If medicines are out of stock, which happens more often, people are forced to go to Shahpur or Gulbarga which is 12.5 km and 83 km away respectively.

“We do not have money,” said Shainsha, when asked about the treatment. “Also, there are not many facilities here for the poor.”

The government hospitals in Gogi and Shahpur do not have records of the affected. “We do not maintain records because these ailments come under general treatment,” said Basuvaraj N, deputy doctor at the Gogi hospital.

Dr.  Ramesh, Taluk Health Officer, Shahpur discussing the contamination of water in Gogi.

Patients are given calcium tablets and pain killers for joint pains and are recommended to visit an orthopedic physician. Basic anti-allergic drugs are given for skin problems. “Even though it’s been almost thirteen years since mining began in Gogi, the after-effects are still evident,” said Dr. Ramesh, Taluk Health Officer, Shahpur. “If this contaminated water is consumed for a long time, it can cause kidney damage. Most people do not know about it.”

 In a study, “An integrated approach for assessment of groundwater quality in and around uranium mineralized zone, Gogi region, Karnataka, India,” published in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences in December 2017, the researchers have detailed the groundwater testing in the Gogi region and have conducted tests to find the concentration of uranium in the water. A total of 367 groundwater samples were collected from 52 wells in and around Gogi, to check parameters such as pH, electrical conductivity, total dissolved solids (TDS), etc. It was found that groundwater, in about 15% of the sampling wells were unsuitable for domestic purposes based on TDS and 17% were unsuitable based on uranium concentration. This analytical data was compared with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the World Health Organisation standards and it was found that 25 percent of the wells were unsuitable for drinking water.  

Former Chairman and Managing Director of Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Ramendra Gupta, who has 35 years of experience in the underground metal mining industry said, “Mining rules are very strict as one cannot play with the environment. If mining of toxic minerals is to be done, the board has to get certificates from the Ministry of Environment and Forest Department as well as from the State Pollution Control Board. As a part of precaution, in the area of mining, ETP (Effluent Treatment Plant) should be installed before the mining process begins. The water passes through this plant to provide safe water to the environment free from the effluents.”

“In Gogi, they did not proceed with the mining as they were supposed to get a letter from the state pollution board to get an effluent treatment plant but because of villagers’ resistance, they did not proceed with it. When I was in service, a vertical shaft with a headgear was put up which had gone down for about 200 metres,” he added.  

Dr. R Ravisankar, an assistant professor who deals with nuclear science said, “Uranium mining causes a lot of radiation. People living in and around the mining area will be affected because of the dosage of radiation. How much ever they are distanced from the radiation, it is safer for them.”

According to the Dianuke report on “Uranium mining in Gogi”, uranium mining began in Gogi in 2007, after The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) proposed to invest Rs.550 crore in uranium ore mining and processing plant. Gogi contains uranium ore which is of higher quality among all the existing mines in the country. The preliminary exploration was conducted by the Atomic Mineral Directorate (AMD), a constituent of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for exploration. The research established mineralisation over a strike length of two km in Gogi. The UCIL project was based on earlier exploratory studies of Uranium which indicated that Gogi contained 4000 tonnes of relatively high-grade uranium of 0.1% which is richer than any ore previously mined in the nation. The UCIL wanted 238 acres of land and one million litres of water per day and 8100 KVA of power to run its operations.

Even before uranium mining began here, many reports were published in various newspapers that if the UCIL obtains clearances for mining in the village, it will directly affect four villages which will come in direct contact with mining and processing activities.

Villagers opposed this uranium mining and urged the Union and State governments not to resume mining and the proposed nuclear power plant in the village. Many health experts were against this uranium mining and nuclear power plant due to its effect of health on people. After protests and legal orders, uranium mining had been put at a halt in the village in 2007, but again began shortly without any notice. The effect of mining still remains the same.

Residents of Gogi and the nearby villages still complain of how the government has not taken any steps to help them nor stop the mining process. “Government does nothing,” said Sreenivas, a shopkeeper and resident of Gogi. “They provide us with only fans and build marriage halls. They do not even know what we want. They provide these only to show that they are doing something for us but in reality, it is of no use to us.”

Agreeing on the same lines, Sheikh Akbhar, agriculture labour in Rajhapur village said, “They don’t provide us with even the basic facilities like food and shelter and how can we expect help from them for our health?”

These villagers’ lands are drilled using machines to take out uranium ore. They detect the right spot which contains high uranium concentration, dig them, collect them and leave to the next spot.

Residents of Gogi and other villages about the contaminated water.

Mohammed Asham, who owns a utensil shop near Gogi, explained how this mining is done. “They dig uranium points or pit holes after they find that there is high uranium content in that particular area. They provide money to the plot owner and they dig the point. After they extract the ore, they fill the hole with sand to make it seem like the land is not exploited.”

The workers who work at the site do not follow the safety measures while mining. The work sites are not cordoned off with fencing or barricades which is a must in the places of mining. The miners work without masks and gloves which increases the risk to their health. Internal exposure to radioactive materials during uranium mining and processing can take place through inhalation of the particles or a cut in the skin resulting in various risky health impacts.

Hoping that he doesn’t become a victim of any of the health hazards, a 40-year-old man who refused to share his name said, “I have worked in the mines for more than five years. The water here and in the nearby villages does not have any taste because it is contaminated. Everybody says that because of the high concentration of uranium, they have joint pain and various other health effects, and it may be true.” 

Ravi S, a civil engineer at Madras Atomic Power Station, Kalpakkam said that gloves and other protective equipment are compulsory for the miners. “But most of them do not use these equipments because of the hot and humid climate. People who work in these fields are usually from rural areas and are used to working with bare hands and legs. Though it is highly recommended for them to wear these safety gears, they decline to follow,” he added.

Informing about safety measures, Assistant professor R Ravisankar said, “Dose rate in the body of the miners may be more due to background radiation. If their dose rate is higher, cancer possibilities are high and this may also affect their children. Usually, in mining areas, monitors are set for each worker which measures dosage to check the radiation they are exposed to. They are asked to take a break from work if their dose is higher than usual. Also, every six months, safety programs are conducted to keep them safe.”

Because of mining that happens in this one village, all the nearby villages are affected badly too.

Doctors said mining communities or camps where the miners temporarily stay are largely affected. “Miners who stay with their families in camps are most affected because they work to extract mines and come in direct contact with the toxic radicals which they can pass it to their children and others,” said Dr. V M Patel, Vector-borne disease control supervisor (VBDCS), NHM (National Health Mission). “This affects villages and towns 30 to 40 km in and around the village. More than 40,000 of the population go to the PHC’s for their treatment. Minor treatments can be provided at these PHC’s but for major ailments, they have to come to the bigger town like Shahpur.”

Dr. V.M.Patel explaining about the health hazards in Gogi and other villages.

Explaining the scenario in the future, he added, “There will be lots of other problems including birth defects and mental disorder due to consumption of high uranium water.”

There is no data in the public hospital in Shahpur taluk of patients suffering from kidney problems, cancer and also about children born with abnormalities. 

Fearing that they will have to suffer, people are migrating to Gulbarga which is about 80 km away from Shahpur. Kabhir, a resident of Saidapur informed, “Already around 40 percent of people have shifted. The others have plans to shift soon but people who do not have money to move are forced to live here.”

Migration has become a common scene in these villages.

It’s not just the humans who are in peril but also the animals living in that environment. The cows, dogs, and others drink water from the same well in which the groundwater is stored. There are no veterinary hospitals nearby. Because of the contaminated water, cultivation has become impossible, forcing the villagers to work as labourers in towns.

“It is impossible to mine without degrading the environment,” said Rinchin, a writer and an environmentalist working with Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a human rights forum. “Wherever there is mining happening, there is a violation of environmental laws. Trees are cut, a lot of dust is generated and the PM2.5 level in a few areas becomes too high that it is impossible to breathe. Most people in the area are affected by lung diseases.”

“The other impacts due to mining include depletion of water level which is again against the environmental law. The soil becomes infertile which affects the growth of crops. In villages, people who are dependent on agriculture are the most affected. Humans, along with other life forms like insects, birds and animals are vulnerable. The radioactivity caused due to uranium mining destroys the environment slowly more like how the poison works,” she added.

Explaining how uranium mining affects the health of not just miners but also people living around the mines, Dr. Vishnu Sreedath P., an oncologist said, “In uranium mining, nuclear alpha particles like thorium and radium get into the body through multiple ways:  through breathing, cut wounds, skin contact and maybe even through food when people do not wash their hands properly. So, it gets into one’s body through eating, touching or smelling. It may not matter if the particles are contacted for just two days or a week but after a long period, there is an accumulation of radioactive particles in their body. Their body can retain the radioactivity, emitting the particles which gradually can cause DNA damages in the cells. Over a period of time, the body becomes unable to cope up with the damage and the cells start to mutate (or damage) because of the radioactive particles which eventually leads to cancer. Lung, skin and bone cancer are very common in people working or living near these mining areas. A few may even have stomach cancer.”

This makes it important for workers to wear protective gear.  But it may not be easy.  “People who are working in mining sites are continuously exposed to nuclear particles. It is too difficult to work with gloves and masks even in an air-conditioned ward. Asking these people to wear these masks and work will make it cumbersome for them. If they use protective equipment, maybe 50 percent of the risk can be reduced but the radioactive elements can remain in the body for long, and over a period of time it can affect people. They can even have liver failure, nerve problems, and kidney failure in the long run when they come in contact with the metal particles.”

Dr. Vishnu Sreedath, an oncologist on possible solutions or precautions that can be taken by people in and around mining areas.

Suggesting possible solutions, Dr. Vishnu said, “People should have health checkup camps in these areas at least once in six months. A general physician can do a basic check-up on people and do an X-ray. If they find any serious health complications, they can send them to hospitals in the cities. The workers can have periodic breaks. They should be paid during their periodic breaks so that they do not miss their checkups.”

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