Mumbai: BMC rat killers at poison risk due to lack of proper safety gear

Jul 12, 2015, 07:30 IST | Sachin Unhalekar

Class IV workers employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to control leptospirosis in multi-crore move, not provided gloves or masks; handle zinc phosphide with bare hands

With 16 deaths in the city due to leptospirosis in the last 10 days alone, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has upped its efforts to control the rodent menace in the city. However, even as it gears to use the Rs 17 crore budget allocated for the same, it seems providing safety gear to its workers is not a priority. Midday found on Saturday, that Class IV employees who were on the streets placing rat poison did not have gloves, masks or gumboots, exposing them not only to leptospirosis, but also zinc phosphide poisoning.

Also read: Two more Mumbaikars die of leptospirosis

A BMC worker applies rat bait at Babulnath and BMC workers make the bait — zinc phosphide mixed with flour — with their bare handsA BMC worker applies rat bait at Babulnath and (right) BMC workers make the bait — zinc phosphide mixed with flour — with their bare hands

Using bare hands
Last week, the BMC announced a city-wide campaign, covering its 24 wards, to curb the city’s rat population. It’s army? Six Class IV employees from each ward, making it a total of 152.

The plan, said a BMC official, is to target areas in the city that are prone to flooding. The employees will identify rat holes, where they will place rat poison. The bait? Zinc phosphide — a rodenticide that will kill the rat within 12 hours.

However, the making of the rat bait is fraught with risk. Zinc phosphide comes in powder form. A BMC employee mixes this chemical with wheat flour with bare hands and then makes it into dough which is then cut into pellets to use as bait. In the absence of any gloves provided by the corporation, the workers use ad hoc gear - plastic sheets - for protection. The dangers are many.

Zinc phosphide is known to cause diarrhea, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, burning sensations, abdominal pain, dizziness and ataxia. People chronically exposed to even small amounts have reported weakness, anaemia, toothache, necrosis of the jaw bones, weight loss, and spontaneous fractures.

Dr Shivaji Kachare from Nagpada Hospital, a forensic expert, said that if not treated within four days, zinc poisoning can be fatal. "Inhaling or consuming either zinc phosphide or aluminium phosphide [another popular rat poison used by the BMC], the chemicals enter the liver through the blood stream and cause the above-mentioned symptoms," he added.

'We need the job'
On Saturday, mid day went to D-Ward (under which areas such as Altamount Road, Grant Road, Babulnath and Breach Candy fall) and spotted BMC staffers on the streets, trying to make the city safe from leptospirosis, sans gloves or masks.

A worker, who was working the rat holes near Babulnath temple, said, “Safety is our last concern, because we want jobs. So, we will work with whatever is given to us. If they want us to make poison to kill rats, we will do it. Even though they haven't given provided us gloves or masks. For us, being in this job is important, as we have a family to run.” It’s a eight-hour job that pays Rs 18,000-22,000 a month.

Also read: 12 patients succumb to leptospirosis in Mumbai in July

A senior BMC official from the pesticide control office, who was at the site, said, "Sometimes, while wading through dirty waters, these workers run the risk of catching leptospirosis themselves. We have asked our seniors to provide them with proper equipment."

However, Rajan Narangiker, head of the department insisted that the workers had been supplied with gloves and masks. "However, they are simply being careless and not making use of it. We will now conduct a workshop urging them to use masks," he added, admitting that the civic body had not provided the workers gum boots, a mistake that would be rectified soon.

The dread of lepto
Leptospirosis is caused by a strain of bacteria called leptospira, which is commonly found in rodents. Humans get infected with they come in contact with contaminated water through their eyes, mouth, nose or cuts in the skin.
Symptoms can arise about two days to four weeks after exposure to the bacteria. They include: high fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, rash, and reddish eyes. If not treated in time, it could lead to organ damage.

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