Monday, January 10, 2011

Uranium in Punjab Water

It started off with Mrinal's post RTI requests (pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 ).

The gist of these reports is that high concentrations of Uranium have been found in bore-well water in areas in Punjab. The uranium in question here is natural uranium and not depleted or enriched uranium, suggesting that a military connotation is unlikely. The study is being conducted by the Guru Nakak Deo University at Amritsar -- and a final report is due in 2 years. The report also states that using reverse osmosis is sufficient to reduce the concentration of U in water.

Concerns regarding consuming food grown in Punjab were raised by Mrinal.

Further investigation lead to the following links from Akhilesh:

Article from Punjab Newsline regarding links between H2O U concentration and mental retardation. Dr. Carin Smit (from RSA) was responsible for the study.

A wikipedia article on the same subject was also unearthed, which contains a good summary of the issues. Along with the summary, several excellent links are also available in the footnotes section, including an NDTV report, a report in the Telegraph and an article in the observer. (Subsequent talkback regarding this article – especially regarding the link between Autism and waterborne Uranium cited by Lingo available here).

From the wikipedia article, it is clear that the likely source of uranium in Punjab was fly-ash from coal-fired power plants. There are 3 coal fired power plants in Punjab, as per this wikipedia article. (a) Ropar (b) Lehra Mohabat (c) Bhatinda

Source map available here. Figures are from the BARC documents referenced above.

The map is mildy suggestive of a correlation of U concentration in water to proximity to Power plants. This correlation was originally investigated by an article in the Observer in 2009.

The technicalities of Uranium pollution due to thermal power generation were then explored. PJ cites a couple of articles

Around 90% naturally occurring uranium could be stopped in the RO membrane. However methods like ion exchange would be more effective. If it is a naturally occuring uranium(?), is probably composed of 99.3% uranium-238, 0.7% uranium-235, and a negligible amount of uranium-234 (by weight), as well as a number of radioactive decay products. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.5 billion years, uranium-235 about 700 million years, and uranium-234 about 25 thousand years. 235 and 234 isotopes are much more harmful than the 238 one. US EPA guideline for drinking water is 20-30 µg/l, Australia is 20 µg/L and California Public Health Goal for Uranium in Drinking Water (not a regulatory standard) is 0.5 µg per litre. So the water in Punjab is definitely 6-7 times higher in concentration even by the modest guidelines. This level of uranium is not dangerous for example if one was to be in the water or bath in the water. But it is NO NO for drinking. Because all uranium isotopes are primarily alpha emitters, they are only hazardous if ingested or inhaled, so definitely NO NO for eating the vegetable products in the area as well. Several of the radioactive uranium decay products are gamma emitters, that is why workers in the vicinity of large quantities of uranium in storage or in a processing facility can also be exposed to low levels of external radiation. This could come in picture if there is a dump site. This is a very serious issue and definitely worth taking considering this will affect generations to come (ofcourse it would depend on the extent of contamination in all of Punjab and neighbouring state waters).

PJ Also supplies a link to a SciAm article, which asserts that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. However, the article asserts that both are fairly harmless and does not get worked up about it.

There are several unanswered questions at this point.

(1) Why Punjab? If fly ash is responsible – why not the USA, which gets more than 50% of its energy through coal? Why not other areas in India?

(2) Is food from Punjab (grown, presumably on this high U water) dangerous?

(3) Are we confident that U is responsible for the retardation in children? Is the number of retarded children in Punjab abnormally high?

(4) Are the concentrations of U unequivocally die to coal ash?

An email was sent by Mihir to offer help with this issue to Ms. Smit in RSA.

Dr Smit,

Hope this email finds you well. I am part of a small group that has recently discovered the issue that you have been working on (regarding extremely high levels of exposure to Uranium in children in Punjab's S Malwa region) and have read the paper that you published together with the team from Microtrace.

Quick introduction to who we are: We are a community of Indians - living both in India and abroad - who have graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras sometime between the last 5-8 years. Our group focuses on policy discussions, but we also want to help out with targeted issues such as this.

First, we wanted to thank you for all the work you have done to analyze and publicize this issue. I am sure it must have been an uphill struggle, and I cannot imagine what it took. For all of this, thank you.

Second, we wanted to ask you how best we could help. Here are a few avenues we are toying with, but we would be interested in your thoughts:

It seems to us that our effort may need two clear goals:

1. Identify and mitigate the root causes of the uranium exposure as quickly as possible

2. Evaluate how widespread the effects of this problem are (eg. Most of India's food comes from the Punjab - is there a possibility of the metal seeping into groundwater that is subsequently used for agriculture?)

There are potentially a few ways of doing this (all thought starters at this point):

a. Get the company I work for (I am an Engagement Manager at a consulting firm called McKinsey) to do a pro-bono study on this issue through their social sector office with a group of volunteers from within the company and try to unearth key causes.

b. Organize fundraisers to highlight this issue and fund academic studies that help us get to the root cause/ mitigate it

c. Reach out to contacts we have in the media in India to ensure that we raise the profile of this problem

d. We may need to do all of these to get anywhere

For now, we would be quite interested in 2 things:

1. Understanding if you are still actively working on this issue, or is there another person you can point us to that may be a better point of contact.

2. If you are active on this topic, we would love to set up a conference call with you and speak to you on what the right approach/ setup might be to make a difference to the children of Faridkot.

Apologies for this long email, and please let us know what we could do to make a difference. Thanks so much!

Mihir Mysore

I'm disabling comments on this post -- let's keep the discussion on FB.

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