West Delhi scrap dealer Deepak Jain kept for 20 days a large consignment of radioactive material, Cobalt 60, in his shop, exposing himself and his workers to the toxic radiation.
During this time, they developed some symptoms of radioactive poisoning, like nausea, irritation in the eyes and even rapid hair loss. Their skin turned blackish with rashes.
But still no one at the scrap market had a clue that something potently radioactive was having a toll on the health of these men, right from the dark corner of the shop.
It was not until Jain was admitted to the Apollo Hospital on Thursday night with severe radiation poisoning that the radiation safety authorities came to know what was at play there.
The metal scrap market, which is exposed to such nuclear hazards, employs more than 20,000 people in 6,000 shops. Of the 6,000, about 250 are scrap importers
Given India’s enforcement mechanism and the laws, it would take people to fall seriously ill and report to a big hospital for the authorities to step in. Even then, chances are they would not know where to begin their probe.
This is because in India, radioactive pollution is uncharted territory. The Environment Protection Act, 1986, the otherwise all-encompassing law on pollution, does not even have the word “radiation”.
The Atomic Energy Act, 1962, which regulates the matter, recognises only the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and its wing, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), both strongly centralised, working directly under the Prime Minister’s Office through the Department of Atomic Energy.
Also, the law does not assign a role to the states in radioactive waste management. As a result, the states find it convenient to sidestep the subject.
In a place like Delhi, for instance, there are no nuclear radiation monitors to scan public places, junkyards, recyclers or even checkposts at interstate borders.
“It is not our mandate to monitor nuclear radiation,” says Delhi’s Environment Secretary Dharmendra Kumar. “All these things are central issues.”
Instead, this is how radioactive pollution is measured in the Capital.
“Once a month we run small machines for some time at a few houses of our colleagues and friends to check if the ambient air has any radiation. That’s it,” says C.L. Bhairam, Region Head-North, Atomic Minerals Directorate of the Department of Atomic Energy.
Top officials at BARC and the AERB could not remember when they last inspected any hospital or factory in Delhi to check compliance.
“What stops individual states from procuring simple gamma-ray monitors and do regular, thorough screening in the cities,” asks Bhairam.
Compare this with countries like the US and you understand the difference.
Radioactivity comes under the US Environment Protection Agency (USEPA), the single-largest body regulating all matters related to environmental health. But the states too have their agencies to facilitate monitoring and implementation.
Radioactive waste comes under biomedical waste in the US. So hospitals and industrial units that handle such material are more accountable.
Every scrap dealer has to have radiation monitoring machines and every consignment has to go through radioactivity screening. Checkposts have radiation detectors, so do hospitals, ports and airports. On top of that, mobile vans carry out screening in the cities.
“Decentralisation is the key,” says Dr T.K. Joshi, head of the Delhi government’s Centre for Environment and Occupational Health and member of the state’s expert committee on hazardous/biomedical waste. “The laws need to tell states in clear terms what their role is and what they can do.”
Until then, in the fight against radioactive poison, you’re pretty much on your own.