Observer investigation uncovers link between dramatic rise in birth defects in Punjab and pollution from coal-fired power stations. Their heads are too large or too small, their limbs too short or too bent. For some, their brains never grew, speech never came and their lives are likely to be cut short: these are the children it appears that India would rather the world did not see, the victims of a scandal with potential implications far beyond the country’s borders.
Some sit mutely, staring into space, lost in a world of their own; others cry out, rocking backwards and forwards. Few have any real control over their own bodies. Their anxious parents fret over them, murmuring soft words of encouragement, hoping for some sort of miracle that will free them from a nightmare. Health workers in the Punjabi cities of Bathinda and Faridkot knew something was terribly wrong when they saw a sharp increase in the number of birth defects, physical and mental abnormalities, and cancers. They suspected that children were being slowly poisoned.
But it was only when a visiting scientist arranged for tests to be carried out at a German laboratory that the true nature of their plight became clear. The results were unequivocal. The children had massive levels of uranium in their bodies, in one case more than 60 times the maximum safe limit.
The results were both momentous and mysterious. Uranium occurs naturally throughout the world, but is normally only present in low background levels which pose no threat to human health. There was no obvious source in the Punjab that could account for such high levels of contamination.
And if a few hundred children – spread over a large area – were contaminated, how many thousands more might also be affected? Those are questions the Indian authorities appear determined not to answer. Staff at the clinics say they were visited and threatened with closure if they spoke out. The South African scientist whose curiosity exposed the scandal says she has been warned by the authorities that she may not be allowed back into the country.
But an Observer investigation has now uncovered disturbing evidence to suggest a link between the contamination and the region’s coal-fired power stations. It is already known that the fine fly ash produced when coal is burned contains concentrated levels of uranium and a new report published by Russia’s leading nuclear research institution warns of an increased radiation hazard to people living near coal-fired thermal power stations.
The test results for children born and living in areas around the state’s power stations show high levels of uranium in their bodies. Tests on ground water show that levels of uranium around the plants are up to 15 times the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe limits. Tests also show that it extends across large parts of the state, which is home to 24 million people.
The findings have implications not only for the rest of India – Punjab produces two-thirds of the wheat in the country’s central reserves and 40% of its rice – but for many other countries planning to build new power plants, including China, Russia, India, Germany and the US. In Britain, there are plans for a coal-fired station at the Kingsnorth facility in Kent.
The victims are being treated at the Baba Farid centres for special children in Bathinda – where there are two coal-fired thermal plants – and in nearby Faridkot. It was staff at those clinics who first voiced concerns about the increasing numbers of admissions involving severely handicapped children. They were being born with hydrocephaly, microcephaly, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and other complications. Several have already died.