Our Toxic World: A Guide to Hazardous Substances in Our Everyday Lives


Toxics Link

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    Everything about the environment seems to be “bad” news. Is it time to switch channels? What is worse is that the issue seems so large, and beyond our grasp. For example, climate change is engulfing the globe and portends that doomsday is not far. Or everything we drink and eat is contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, or introduced genes, so what do we eat? Mountains of waste will engulf our cities and our homes soon, breathing toxicity into all we inhabit. It seems it is time to close the newspaper and start living our lives, since there is little we can do to change the situation. Like helpless hares, we seem to be frozen in inaction, hypnotized by the snake, which is about to devour us.

    Yet this need not be true. We can and do make a difference. Each and every action we take, does count. It is not only about how we consume, for example, saying “no” to the plastic bag, or changing the light bulb to a CFL, but also, how we help others to act. Asking the toy shop if it has lead in the toys our children will play with will trigger off action from the toy manufacturer, as will querying the waste management company about what it does with the waste after we segregate it at home. This power of influencing change has been demonstrated time and time again and it cannot be underestimated. In fact, it may be the only reason anything has changed in the past, through making choices in our everyday existence, both as consumers and citizens.

    However, often we are not told about what is going on around us, not as doomsday messages, but as helpful information which can help us be aware, and act as rational intelligent beings. Information availability of this type, is very poor, even in this “information age”! The products we buy are not labeled to tell us what chemicals or heavy metals they contain, and what their potential health risk could be, for example. Our cars do not have carbon meters to help us make a choice about the next journey. Our drinking water does not announce how many pesticides it may contain, or our computer about the toxic waste it leads to. Our specific environmental concerns are often not translated into information, and hence we are left immobile about our choices and actions. This needs to change. Rational choices need the right information, but we need to demand it.

    The reasons for the change are also about our own health and quality of life. Environmental impacts are very significant causes for poor health globally, especially in developing countries. Lead exposures from paint and toys lead to lower IQ and reduced intellectual potential. Mercury in water and fish leads to organ disorders and coordination difficulties. Burning PVC plastics can lead to hormonal problems and cancer. There are some very good reasons for action.

    The good news is that there are alternatives available. A solar lantern can light up our home. Paint can be lead-free. Water can be cleaner. The air can be breathable. These alternatives are available, but we need to choose them. That time has come upon us—for the future of our planet, as well as ours and that of our children for whom we inherit this earth. We can do it, and being informed citizens is the key; being ignorant can only be termed foolhardy. Hopefully, this book will help us take another step towards being that.



    The roots of this book lie in the huge volumes of information that Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, has put together on issues related to waste and hazardous substances in their 15 years of action on these matters. For that, we have to thank each and every member of Toxics Link, past and present. They—and others like them working tirelessly and often thanklessly on issues of global and local concern—have been instrumental in bringing in a consciousness toward a more responsibly nurtured environment. In doing so, they have created a suitable framework for the idea of this book to grow on.

    In particular, the development of this book has been possible thanks to Alison Purdy who, as a volunteer placed by Challengers World Wide at Toxics Link, put together much of its text; Pragya Majumder, who patiently handheld, cajoled and coaxed, and sometimes impatiently threatened me into giving it shape; and the dynamic duo of Satish Sinha and Ravi Agarwal, who had the vision that made this project come into being. Of course, if Hivos, the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, hadn't been willing to fund the project, it would never have got off the ground.

    Most words would be too few for my talented collaborator on the project, Priya Kuriyan, whose facility with the visual medium never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe. An animator with no experience on illustrating comics, she took the plunge bravely—and came out sparkling.

    Salil Chaturvedi, my friend and professional partner for many years at Splash! Communications and, before that, Media Workshop, was tireless as always in his management of the project, dealing on my behalf with the big, bad world out there.

    We were helped along the way with advice, feedback, and support from several people. Orijit Sen, doyen among comic artists in India, whom I am fortunate enough to have as my brother, gave us direction freely and without hesitation. I also got valuable inputs from Ravi Mani, P. Madhavan, Rajiv and Tallulah D'Silva, and members of the Goawriters group. Sorry guys, if some of the things you said didn't get incorporated—if this goes into a second edition, perhaps then.…

    Our Toxic World isn't exactly a conventional academic work, but Ashok Chandran, Rekha Natarajan, and the people at Sage Publications were willing to take a chance on an offbeat format, and so this will see the light of day.

    Beyond that, it's all up to you, the reader, who've picked up this book hopefully with the idea of bettering your life and bettering the world in the process. Let's hope that together we get to make some difference.



    An allergy story: A friend of mine, Salil Chaturvedi, used to have these strong dark circles around his eyes that often developed an odd, parched texture. He didn't think much about them, even though some of us would comment on them whenever they got particularly bad. After more than two years of this on-and-off occurrence, he had gone to an Ayurvedic doctor on an unrelated complaint. The doctor took a look at the condition of his eyes and told him it was an allergy to, of all things, tomato ketchup! To test the validity of this diagnosis, Salil stopped having ketchup for a while and the dark circles indeed did disappear. Later, when he tried ketchup again, he found that the problem re-occurred. Experimentation told him it wasn't the tomatoes, but the chemicals that are used to preserve the ketchup that was causing the allergy.

    The vanishing vultures: A study done in India in 2007 revealed that the vulture species in the country is disappearing “faster than the dodo” and the bird could be extinct in the next 10 years. Earlier scientific research had shown that one of the main causes of this disappearance was kidney failure among vultures, caused by a veterinary drug called Diclofenac. This anti-inflammatory drug is given to cattle to reduce joint pains and keep them working longer. It accumulated inside the bodies of the cows and buffaloes and was transferred to the vultures when they fed on the corpses of the animals.

    The questions we ask: Some days ago, I was talking to a friend from Delhi about the problems with waste management in Goa, where I live. During the course of the conversation, it became clear that she had no clue about what happened to the waste that she generated once the koodawalla took it away, back home in Delhi. When I remarked on this, she said, “Who does?”

    These stories point to a disturbing pattern in our contemporary lives. Our day-to-day existence has become so complex and intricately interwoven with chemicals and pollutants that we are rarely aware of our impact on the environment and the environment's impact on us.

    How did it come to this? How have we allowed ourselves to be so overtaken by a way of life that we no longer have any control over? Even among those who notice these trends and ponder on them, very few realize that it didn't happen by chance.

    The end of World War II signaled the end of the old order, one under which Western Europe had dictated the ways of the world for centuries. With the United States of America now gaining the mantle of leadership of the new world order, it was for the policy-makers of that nation to plot the future course of the global community. The direction that they determined was one best exemplified by this statement from Victor Lebeau, a top analyst of that era:

    Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.

    This attitude has assiduously been promoted as the mindset to aspire for, and it has been a job well done. The vast majority of the world's nations has by now adopted one or the other variant of this philosophy of progress, and most people today view this model of development as the only viable one. As a result of this approach, we are now, so far, down this path to the future that the possibility of alternative routes is equated to a return to a primitive existence, and thus easily discarded.

    However, in recent years, there has been a growing awareness that the chosen path is not without its pitfalls. For you to have picked up this book, these questions must be in your mind as well: Are the products that you use everything they are touted to be? Is there, perhaps, more to them than meets the eye—hidden aspects that can cause you or the environment harm?

    To keep the concourse of consumption clear and unrestrained, the detritus that results from it has been consistently removed from the public gaze, in a manner that only postpones—and makes cumulative—its impact. This way of life is built on the foundation of a belief that resources are infinite, and that utilizing them without any form of reparation or compensation will therefore not hurt us, the consumers.

    Unfortunately, this belief is erroneous. The extent of resources is certainly humongous, but it is not infinite, and human appetite and human growth have proven to be more voracious than even this vast abundance is able to sustain. As the number of human beings on the planet has increased exponentially over the last century, especially, the burden on the earth has proven to be too much for it to bear.

    This had started becoming evident in the second half of the last century. The revelatory Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was one of the first pieces of work to bring attention to how man's technological advances were playing havoc with the systems of nature. Since the 1960s, when the book was published, there has emerged a steady stream of rigorously-researched and deeply insightful treatises which have spotlighted the seamier side of the development model that the world has adopted. But it is now, at the beginning of the 21st century, that we have begun to feel the full force of the ecological disaster.

    The biggest crisis of the times is climate change wrought by global warming, but it is a sum of many different environmental problems that have become increasingly visible, especially in India. Our rivers and water bodies, even the very air we breathe, are choked with pollutants. Mining and industries, operating in untrammeled anarchy, are creating deep and suppurating wounds on the face of the earth. The cities are coating the ground with concrete, squeezing out the life breath of plants and wildlife that once shared that space. The waste that we create is spilling out of landfills and dumps where we tried to hide it, and into our lives. Everywhere, we are surrounded by chemicals, so much so that we fail to notice their presence and believe that this is how it has always been.

    The deepest cut of all is that we have accepted that there is no way out. And this despite the fact that, at the level of the individual, the community, even the nation itself, examples and alternatives are available that show us that it is possible to travel a different path without having to go back in time.

    This book attempts to explore some of these alternative routes. By taking a series of peeks at the lives of the fictitious Sachdeva family and the people they come in contact with, it examines the hazardous substances that affect us in our everyday lives, outlines the effects these materials can have on us, and suggests alternative routes that we can adopt for a cleaner, healthier lifestyle.

    For this is the one certain lesson that we need to take away from the experiences of those, like Madhavi Kulkarni in this book, who have been fighting on the side of the environment—that it is individual actions that will collectively bring about the change that we desire. This book therefore focuses on individual stories to look at how we can each be the agents of that change in our own lives.


    Cast of Characters

  • Glossary of Terms

    • BMW: Bio-medical Waste
    • CNG: Compressed Natural Gas
    • EPA: Environmental Protection Act 1980
    • E-waste: Electronic waste
    • LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
    • LPG: Liquid Petroleum Gas
    • MOEF: Ministry of Environmental and Forests
    • MSW: Municipal Solid Waste
    • POPs: Persistent Organic Pollutants
    • PP: Polypropylene
    • PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride
    • ROHS: Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive
    • UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme
    • WEEE: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive
    • Acid rain: Acid rain is rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, that is, it has elevated levels of hydrogen ions (low pH). It has harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals and infrastructure. Acid rain is mostly caused by emissions of compounds of sulfur, nitrogen and carbon, which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. However, it can also be caused naturally by the splitting of nitrogen compounds by the energy produced by lightning strikes, or the release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere by phenomena of volcano eruptions.
    • Effluent: Effluent in the man-made sense is generally considered to be water pollution, such as the outflow from a sewage treatment facility or the wastewater discharge from industrial facilities.
    • Emphysema: Emphysema is a long-term, progressive disease of the lung that primarily causes shortness of breath. In people with emphysema, the lung tissues necessary to support the physical shape and function of the lung are destroyed. It is included in a group of diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD (pulmonary refers to the lungs). Emphysema is called an obstructive lung disease because the destruction of lung tissue around smaller airways, called bronchioles, makes these airways unable to hold their shape properly when you exhale.
    • Erosion and sedimentation control technique: Typically, when the earth's surface is exposed to the impacts of rainfall, there is an increase in the volume and velocity of run-off. This sets off a chain reaction that results in the transportation and deposition of sediment, reduced stream capacity, and ultimately increased stream scour and flooding. Additionally, suspended sediment contributes to a decline in water quality by blocking sunlight, reducing photosynthesis, decreasing plant growth, destroying bottom-dwelling species' habitat, carrying attached pollutants such as phosphorus, and so on. The list of negative impacts is long.
    • Energy Intensive Material (EIM): EIMs are defined as commodities whose direct and indirect productive processes require unusually large amounts of energy. Production of non-fuel EIMs may have consumed, in the 1970s, 25–30 percent of the world's energy. Energy embodied in internationally-traded EIMs may be equivalent to one-third or more of the total direct international trade in energy.
    • Hazardous substances: Hazardous materials in various forms can cause death, serious injury, long-lasting health effects, and damage to buildings, homes and other property. Many products containing hazardous chemicals are used and stored in homes routinely. These products are also shipped daily on the nation's highways, railroads, waterways and pipelines.
    • Heavy metals: A heavy metal is a member of an ill-defined subset of elements that exhibit metallic properties, which would mainly include the transition metals, some metalloids, lanthanoids, and actinides. Heavy metal can include elements lighter than carbon and can exclude some of the heaviest metals. Heavy metals occur naturally in the ecosystem with large variations in concentration. In modern times, anthropogenic sources of heavy metals, such as pollution, have been introduced to the ecosystem. Waste-derived fuels are especially prone to contain heavy metals so they should be a central concern in a consideration of their use.
    • HVAC equipment: Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning — the technology of indoor environmental comfort.
    • Landfill: A landfill, also known as a dump, is a site for the disposal of waste materials by burial and is the oldest form of waste treatment.
    • Leachate: Leachate is the liquid that drains or ‘leaches’ from a landfill; it varies widely in composition based on the age of the landfill and the type of waste that it contains. It can usually contain both dissolved and suspended material.
    • PFA limit: The Prevention Food Adulteration (PFA) Act, 1954, provides tolerance limits for heavy metals in food articles. It has, however, several limitations — it does not provide tolerance limits of many food articles; and, of the 19 heavy metals, it has set limits only for seven.
    • Pulmonary oedema: Pulmonary edema (American English), or oedema (British English) is fluid accumulation in the lungs. It leads to impaired gas exchange and may cause respiratory failure.
    • Rainwater harvesting: Rainwater harvesting is the gathering, or accumulating and storing, of rainwater. Rainwater harvesting has been used to provide drinking water, water for livestock, water for irrigation or to refill aquifers in a process called groundwater recharge.
    • Renewable materials: Renewable materials are substances derived from a living tree, plant, animal or ecosystem which has the ability to regenerate itself. A renewable material can be produced again and again. For example, when we use plantation wood to make paper, we can plant more trees to replace it.
    • Volatile Organic Compounds: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere.
    • Water run-off: This is the water flow which occurs when soil is infiltrated to full capacity, and excess water from rain, snowmelt or other sources flows over the land.

    Behind the Book

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