Chennai oil spill has severely impacted volunteers’ health, says report

Updated on Feb 22, 2017 01:23 PM IST

While the devastating long-term ecological impacts of the Ennore oil spill have been written about, the adverse impact on the health of volunteers and emergency workers is equally grim.

Workers and locals clean the oils slick stand along the shoreline of Ennore port in Chennai.(Aditya Iyer/HT Photo)
Workers and locals clean the oils slick stand along the shoreline of Ennore port in Chennai.(Aditya Iyer/HT Photo)
Hindustan TImes, Chennai | By

An independent report has highlighted the long-term health impacts of the Ennore oil spill and the need for sustained medical care for volunteers as well as local residents, who came into contact with the oil.

The report, a summary of a fact-finding mission led by Dr Shruthee SG, Dr S Sudharshini, and Dr Amaran M, was centred around Bharatiyar Nagar, a residential area dominated by fishermen and which was the worst affected by the oil spill that occurred on January 28. The report was released on Tuesday.

“The reason we conducted the field research and released this report was because we didn’t see many media reports about the long-term health problems stemming from the spill,” Dr Shruthee SG said.

“But it was also to raise awareness. Many of those who helped clear the oil spill - from volunteers to fishermen, to local residents, to firemen - did not have proper safety equipment and did not even know the ramifications,” she added.

There are two groups of chemicals in crude oils that are particularly hazardous to humans. One is volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include chemicals like benzene and xylene, and the other is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

If these chemicals are either inhaled or come into contact with the skin, short-term effects include irritation of the skin, inflammation of the eyes, and respiratory problems.

Firefighters and volunteers try to clean up oil that washed ashore, in Chennai last month. (PTI Photo)
Firefighters and volunteers try to clean up oil that washed ashore, in Chennai last month. (PTI Photo)

In the long-term, the damage could be far more severe. Cancer, specifically leukaemia and skin cancer, along with chronic body pain and an increased likelihood of heart attacks.

“This isn’t just an issue that volunteers who came into direct contact with the oil have to worry about. Local residents, many of whom complained about sore eyes and breathing difficulties, are also more susceptible to these health risks because of their close proximity to the oil,” Dr Amaran N said.

The report stressed that the most important thing authorities can do is monitor the health of those affected. It made it clear that steps must be taken to ensure that misinformation does not spread in case there is another oil spill.

“You had volunteers who were cleaning up the oil spill in t-shirts and shorts, without gloves or even a mask. You also had the collected oil just sitting there on the roadside in open bins and tubs. Clearly, safety was not a priority,” Shweta Narayan, an environmental activist with Healthy Energy Initiative, India, said.

A combination of lack of information, no safety precautions, and no understanding of the health ramifications on the part of both those cleaning up the oil spill and the authorities has compounded the health impact of the Ennore disaster.

The team of doctors recommended immediate medical checkups and monitoring of the residents.

“The authorities have no idea of the number of people who have been affected by the spill. What they need to do is medically observe those who have, note down any existing medical conditions, and continue to monitor them,” Dr Shruthee SG said.

“The health problems can take years to manifest themselves. The authorities need to do this preemptively,” she added.

Hindustan Times has already investigated what went wrong on January 28, showing how a relatively small oil spill escalated into a full-blown ecological disaster largely because of poor management and lack of communication between the Kamarajar Port authorities and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

But the long-term impact on the health of the people who helped combat it, and who live by the oil-stained shores in Bharatiyar Nagar, is also an issue, and one that needs attention in the long run.

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    Aditya Iyer was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. He no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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