Chennai: Volunteers cleaning up after oil spill on a slippery slope

No masks, gloves or gumboots have been given to most workers, and there's no clarity on the extent of contamination or damage

Members of the Pollution Response Team at work
Members of the Pollution Response Team at work

In their eagerness of have all hands on deck to remove the massive crude oil slick from Chennai's coast, the authorities may have endangered hundreds of lives. Most volunteers, along with the Coast Guard, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the state fire service, are handling the toxic hydrocarbon sludge washed ashore without even basic safety gear. Most are removing the tar with their bare hands and have no masks or gumboots. Only a lucky few have gloves covering their forearms.

Health experts and scientists warn that the absence of industrial safety gear can expose them to ailments from skin burns and allergies to respiratory disorders and encephalopathy (a swelling in the brain).

Toxic material
Dr Wiqar Shaikh, professor of medicine, Grant Medical College and Sir JJ Group of Hospitals, said halogenated petroleum hydrocarbons like carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene can be ingested or inhaled, or can enter the body via a simple contact. When ingested, they can lead to aspiration pneumonia and adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Inhalation of the toxic fumes can caused convulsions or encephalopathy.

An oil-covered turtle found dead on the Chennai coast. Pics/AFP
An oil-covered turtle found dead on the Chennai coast. Pics/AFP

Symptoms of such toxic exposure vary from high fever, persistent cough, breathlessness, skin burns and palpitation, all of which require immediate medical attention. Those far from the shores are no safer, warned Dr Jiyalal Jaiswar, former chief scientist, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Institute Of Oceanography. He said to assess the extent of contamination caused by the oil spill, samples of fish from the affected areas should have been collected. "The oil spill will have a major impact on the aquatic ecosystem. The contamination will consequently reach humans through consumption of affected fish." Samples will also help estimate the loss caused to the fishing industry.

No fish sample yet
But in the six days since the spillage, such samples are yet to collected. Prabhakar Mishra, scientist from the Integrated Costal and Marine Area Management, Project Directorate, Chennai, said samples haven't been collected because fishermen are cagey about venturing into the sea in such a dire scenario. "Our focus right now is on containing the contamination. At some places, we found 1,600 microgram of petroleum hydrocarbon per litre of water, instead of the approved level of 16 microgram of petroleum hydrocarbon."

Dr Beela Rajesh, commissioner, fisheries, Tamil Nadu government, the death of several small fish within a radius of 3 km from the affected zones raise the fear of contamination. "Tamil Nadu is the fourth largest marine producer in the country. Three of the 13 coastal areas in Tamil Nadu known for fishing have been affected by the oil spill."
She, too, said fish samples have not been collected owing to fishermen's hesitation over venturing into the sea.

Asked if the daily fish catch has been affected and an estimate of the loss incurred, she said a central government has arrived to assess the extent of damage. "Only after the situation is brought under control can we focus on other aspects." Mishra cautioned that it will take six months to a year for normalcy to return. "But, the manner in which over 70 tonne of sludge has been removed is definitely a matter of concern."

Conflicting reports
Amidst the lack of clarity over the extent of damage, there are conflicting reports of turtle deaths. While Rajesh said found 15 turtles were found dead at different locations near the Chennai coast, Mishra clarified that the number is two at best. Mishra claimed that the two turtles didn't die owing to the oil slick, but of injuries caused by fishing boats.

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