Chennai oil spill: Health hazards of this ecological nightmare are monumental

The health hazards of the Chennai oil spill and the ecological damage sustained by the nearly 20 tons of fuel spilled on the Ennore shoreline are monumental

Vishwam Sankaran February 07, 2017 16:19:45 IST
Chennai oil spill: Health hazards of this ecological nightmare are monumental

What health hazards could arise from an unsafe handling of fuel oil? I desperately needed to know. Driving nearly 30 km to Ennore’s shoreline in Chennai, I was welcomed by the sight of a traffic policeman signalling me to turn around. As I lowered the window, a concentrated stench of oil was the second greeting sign which told me that I had arrived at the right place.

This was on 3 February. At first, I wondered if the traffic policeman was gesturing that access to the site was restricted. If they could impose a curfew at the Marina Beach without public consent, they could do so here too, couldn’t they? But I assured myself that he was asking me to park the car somewhere else, and not to go away. Besides, I had just heard on the news that the then Chief Minister O Panneerselvam had called out for volunteers to clear the oil spill bordering this shoreline.

It had all started on 28 January at about 3:45 am, when two ships MT Dawn Kanchipuram and MT BW Maple collided with each other, two nautical miles off the Kamarajar Port at Ennore and spilled nearly 20 tons of fuel oil into the sea. Within a span of six days, the oil had spread nearly 35 km along Chennai’s coast. Now, cleaning of the shores was underway. Of course! The government definitely needs student volunteers now, don’t they? At least for now.

Chennai oil spill Health hazards of this ecological nightmare are monumental

Coast Guard, State revenue personnel, local volunteers, and fishermen removing black oil washed ashore after an LPG tanker collided near Kamarajar Port in Ennore, Chennai. PTI

What followed next made me want to unlearn everything I understood about the toxicity of fuel oil. Fishermen, student volunteers, policemen in uniform and coastal guards in theirs, were all constantly mobile. The crew was equipped with “state-of-the-art” 25-litre buckets to clear the spilled oil, which had turned the coastline into a dense black swamp. I could not spot a single inert soul there. Everyone was tirelessly organised and like a 'well-oiled' machine, they scooped the toxic sludge with the buckets and relayed them across, till they were emptied into larger tanks. I later learned from other sources that these tanks were taken for a special treatment procedure organised by the Indian Oil Corporation. Here, the oil would be tilled with soil and digested by oil-eating bacteria in a compost pit over the following months.

In the rocky terrains of the Ennore shoreline, I watched the cleaning crew work without a break in the mid-day heat. While the oil covered rocks were very difficult for me to even stand on, I watched these men religiously work, without throwing any tantrums about the work atmosphere or the equipment offered to them. Wearing calf high boots and gloves that were folded just above their wrists, they did not even pause for a moment to wipe any oil in contact with their skin.

On inquiry, I learned that a majority of them were local volunteers – most being fishermen and youngsters. What really bothered me about this clean-up was an old CNN report on the Exxon Valdez oil spill that happened in 1989, along the coast of Alaska. According to this report, the average life expectancy of clean-up workers involved in that spill was 51 years. This was 27 years lesser than the average life expectancy in the US at that time.

During the Exxon Valdez clean-up efforts, the workers were even provided with special cleaning suits and pollution masks. And here, at Ennore, workers were provided with just rubber gloves and boots. I could only wish that the CNN report was not true. Even if CNN’s report was not reliable, the risk arising from clean-up is mathematically known, evaluated using the term Odds Ratio (OR).

Research by epidemiologist Jose Miguel Carrasco puts ‘cleaning of oil spills’ at an OR of 3.86 for developing headaches. This means that on exposure to fuel oil spill, one is nearly four times as likely to develop a headache as when not. Similarly, the OR is 2.30 for respiratory problems.

Chennai oil spill Health hazards of this ecological nightmare are monumental

Knowing vs believing the risks

Asked if the volunteers were informed of the toxic working conditions, Venkatesh, a local fisherman from the area stated that the supervisors had not briefed them about the health hazards of cleaning at any point. In fact, he went on to state that the fishermen volunteered despite knowing the health risks themselves.

“These arms and legs, have been used for swimming against the rough seas for ages. No bone problem would affect us,” he remarked, when I tried to inform him that in previous oil spills, the cleaners had reported arthritis as one of the major effects. Fuel oil is known to contain chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylenes and other Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) which are all known to have toxic effects. PAH, in particular, is very well known for causing cancer.

The status here reminded me of environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman’s words, who said, “Safety is a culture. Indeed, this was a matter of quickly responding to the situation but do you [the volunteers] believe that the oil is dangerous? This is something different: From ‘knowing it is dangerous by reading in a book’ and believing it”.

Where’re the animal welfare activists when you need them?

Being a body of literates, one would expect that the animal welfare organisations, who raised their voices against jallikattu, would muster a voice against the Kamarajar Port oil spill. Do turtles and fishes not deserve their voice? Maybe, they just do not believe in the magnitude of impact this could cause to the poor marine animals. The oil spill’s impact on turtles is also inconclusive till now. Akila, a volunteer at Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, stated that post the oil spill, about 20 turtles had swept ashore dead.

However, she added that it remains to be seen if the turtles died due to the spill or of other reasons. The post-mortem report must inspect the the dead turtles and see if they were smothered to death by the spilled oil. “Definitely the oil would affect the turtles. There are no two ways about that”, she concluded.

The autopsy was due to be released on Monday by the Wildlife Warden affiliated to the Vandalur Zoo. However, no official statement has been released on the turtles’ cause of death so far. The toxicology results of the oil is also to be released by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. We had waited for nearly three days watching the spill spread and become a crisis, so we might have to wait longer for these results to come.

It is now known that the ship responsible (or in this case irresponsible), MT Dawn Kanchipuram, along with the government would finance the cleaning process and remedial measures to balance the environment. Yet, there hasn’t been any public announcement from the government or the ship, coming forward to offer volunteers medical aid if their health deteriorates.

Surely at a time when these fishermen struggle to even sell their catch in the market, self-financing their medical needs would be severely traumatising. The least the volunteers could do is to vigilantly monitor signs in their body for days to come and take medical help without negligence.

Chennai oil spill Health hazards of this ecological nightmare are monumental

Fishermen, student volunteers and the coast guard working hard to clean the oil spill.

Who is Educated?

There was another point of view here among the volunteers, which I believe is nothing short of martyrdom. The fishermen believed that the sea had to be cleared off the spill immediately to restore normal fishing conditions. Of course! Their livelihoods were dependent on it.

Venkatesh said that the local fishermen were worried about this spill affecting the fish breeding season. “The fishes we catch, lay eggs near the shorelines. They may not do this for the next two months due to the spill. If they do not lay eggs here, there may not be enough catch for us in the following months” he said.

With the oil creating a dark shiny cover on top, light penetration to underwater plants would also be affected. If these plants don’t make enough food from sunlight, the creatures feeding on them are also deprived of nutrients. This is a blow to the entire coastal aquatic ecosystem.

There is also the problem of the oil directly affecting the marine life forms. I could imagine how this may happen based on Nityanand Jayaraman’s words. He said that some oil may have already aggregated into tar-balls and settled to the sea bed over the past week. These oily substances are neither easily digested nor excreted by living beings. They tend to accumulate and grow in the food chain in a process called biological magnification.

Imagine a tiny marine insect, accidentally feeding on the tar-balls. The insect would soon be poisoned. A bigger creature, like a prawn. feeding on three such insects would have thrice the poison level in it. And finally, a hungry fish that feeds on a bulk of prawns, over a span of time, accumulates and magnifies the poison in it. One of the worst affected and easily killed are the fishes in larval stages, which are reliant solely on food from the shore lines.

All of this, I needn’t convey to Venkatesh, who summed up “If you take out one creature here [coast], others linked to it will be affected. They are all connected as a community”. “Only we fishermen have to help ourselves. Swachh Bharat doesn’t apply for the oceans, I guess,” quipped Venkatesh, before leaving for the volunteer work.

It was very intriguing to me. What is belief (the health risk of fuel oil) for some, stands as ignorable knowledge for the government and what is knowledge taken for granted (need for conserving biodiversity) by qualified officials, is a hard-core belief for these 'uneducated' fishermen. So who really is 'uneducated? The learned disbeliever or the believing illiterate?

In other news, Tamil Nadu slipped to rank 22 this year in the ease of doing business ranking. It is business as usual it seems, done with ease.

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