The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has released the findings of a crucial new study on soil and water contamination in and around the Union Carbide factory premises in Bhopal. The report assumes significance in the context of consistent denials of hazardous waste and groundwater contamination by the Union Government, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Madhya Pradesh government.

The focus of the CSE report differs from those conducted by government agencies by virtue of it being based on proving “chronic toxicity as opposed to the acute toxicity” focus of the latter.

“Chronic toxicity implies that continuous exposure, even in small amounts, can lead to poisoning of our bodies,” said CSE director Sunita Narain releasing the report. “So the claim that the factory is not dangerous because people can go inside, touch the waste and still be alive is misleading,” she added.

The report also differs from the government stand on groundwater contamination.

While the Union Government has not had any problems acknowledging the presence of hazardous waste inside the factory premises, it has consistently denied contamination in the groundwater in the area.

However, the CSE report confirms excessive groundwater contamination with all 11 groundwater samples collected from colonies around the UCIL factory found to be contaminated with chlorinated benzene compounds and organo-chlorine pesticides.

Madhya Pradesh Minister for Gas Relief Babulal Gaur told media persons that the CSE report would be sent to the Centre for confirmation and only then anything concrete could be said. There has been no official response from the Centre to the report.

According to the report, health impacts of the slow poisoning caused by these chemicals are devastating. Chlorinated benzene compounds can affect and damage liver and blood cells, while organo-chlorine pesticides can lead to cancers and bone defects.

This fact flies in the face of claims made by the Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) that a person weighing 70 kg could orally consume 200 gm of waste material and “there will not be any death”. The report clearly indicates that these chemicals are highly toxic as there is no “safe consumption” standard for these pesticides.

Lab tests of these samples revealed high contamination levels in soil as well as groundwater conforming that the waste and soil samples in and around the factory have high levels of Carbaryl, mercury, Lindane and chromium.

“What is worrying is high-level contamination in groundwater collected from areas 3 km downhill from the factory,” said CSE associate director Chandra Bhushan.

“I believe the Government clearly knows this. The samples that we studied were collected along with a Central Pollution Control Board team and they have studied the same samples. But I don’t know why they have not finished the testing yet,” he said.

According to CSE sources, the Board did confirm off the record that the soil samples indicate high levels of contamination. As for groundwater, the CPCB decided to collect samples separately.

“Water contamination is the most difficult to deal with as it is an extremely expensive process and that’s probably the reason the Government is not talking about it,” said Ms. Narain.