The recent news about the death of a scrapyard worker in New Delhi due to radiation poisoning is an eye opener about the lax enforcement of waste disposal laws in India.
In early April, a machine from Delhi University containing cobalt-60, a radioactive metal used for radiotherapy in hospitals, ended up in a scrapyard in the city.
AdvertisementRajendra Yadav, a 35-year-old worker in the congested yard in Mayapuri, western New Delhi, died due to multiple organ failure on April 26. Seven others were hospitalised.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was the worst radiation incident worldwide in four years.
Yadav had been given a "shiny piece of a white metal" from the machine as a sample to scout for a buyer and had carried it around in his leather wallet, showing it to potential customers.
In pain and with burn marks on his hips and thighs, he went to see doctors who confirmed he had suffered radiation poisoning, sparking panic in nearby residential areas and leading to a scramble for the source by investigators.
"The metal was gleaming. We assumed it to be expensive and wanted to sell it for a good price," said Yadav's friend, Deepak Jain, who has been a waste metal trader for 15 years.
Jain's younger brother is one of the seven people who are still ill in hospital.
"We had never heard about Cobalt-60 before. Nobody informed us that this metal could kill us," Jain told AFP.
The leak has raised concerns over the handling of radioactive material in India at a time when the government is pushing ahead with ambitious plans to build new nuclear power stations to meet the country's energy needs.
"If India aspires to be a high nuclear dependent state then such errors cannot be allowed," said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxic Links, an environmental non-government organisation in New Delhi.
"If our usage of radioactive material escalates, then a common man's awareness must increase at the same level."
It is also a salutary tale for India's waste disposal workers, up to a million in number, who are mostly poor and often take apart machines and other equipment without protective gear or training.
Toxic Links estimates that India produces five million tonnes of hazardous industrial waste every year and imports 5,000 tonnes of scrap metal every day.
"Everything and anything is welcome in India," said Ajay Doyal, an independent consultant on recycling metal waste, based in the southern city of Hyderabad.
"We buy waste of all kinds that is filling up cities and choking waterways. This has to stop."
After the Mayapuri scandal, India's shipping ministry ordered 12 ports across the country to install detectors for radioactive material, fearing other hazardous materials could slip into the country.
But Doyal says such measures are like "a drop in the ocean," as India is fast becoming the world's biggest dumpyard.
He said the focus should not only be on high-profile installations such as power plants and research facilities, but also on ship-breaking yards, recycling plants and even large rubbish dumps.
"People will buy scrap, but it is the government's duty to keep an eye on the contents and enforce laws to prevent such disasters," he said.
After two weeks of inspections in several markets, officials from India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the local police say they have now found all of the radioactive material from the university machine.
Traces of the dangerous metal were found on the clothes of several junkyard workers and blood samples from more than 200 workers were collected to test if they had been exposed.
"Lessons have to be learnt urgently," said S.K.Malhotra, a senior official at the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC), a leading atomic research institute in the western city of Mumbai.