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Express Investigation: In groundwater near a Delhi landfill, heavy metals like lead and cadmium

To be sure, groundwater collected from handpumps and the submersible pump is usually not used for drinking by residents, who instead rely on tankers or cans in the absence of regular piped water.

Bhalswa site, where unsegregated waste began to be dumped in 1994, had around 80 lakh tonnes of legacy waste spread over 70 acres as of 2019. (Archive)

Lead up to 50 times the acceptable limit, cadmium up to seven times — an analysis of groundwater near Bhalswa landfill by The Indian Express has thrown up findings that raise concerns for those living there.

The Indian Express collected three groundwater samples from Shraddhanand Colony, near the landfill site, and got them
tested by an NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited private laboratory. While two samples were collected from two handpumps located by the side of the road, the third was collected from a submersible pump in a house in the area. The handpumps were around 100 to 150 metres away from the landfill site, and the submersible pump around 60 to 70 metres away.

In May, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had issued notices to the Secretary of the Union Jal Shakti Ministry, the Chief Secretary of the Delhi government, and the Chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board, asking for detailed reports on contamination of groundwater near landfill sites in Delhi and steps taken or proposed to be taken to deal with the problem.

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To be sure, groundwater collected from handpumps and the submersible pump is usually not used for drinking by residents, who instead rely on tankers or cans in the absence of regular piped water. The water, though, is used for everyday chores such as washing clothes or utensils — something health experts raised red flags about.

On whether the use of this water for purposes other than drinking can also be harmful, Dr Atul Kakar, vice-chairman, Department of Internal Medicine, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, told The Indian Express: “Hardness of water may not be a good thing for washing purposes, since it won’t lather. Cleaning or washing the streets, maybe you can still use it. But beyond that, it’s basically still coming into the ecosystem of humans. Small amount of use can be there for peri domestic activity, beyond that, there is no use for this kind of infected water.”

An official of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) said that piped water is available in the area only once in two days. He also said that water from handpumps that are located in some colonies or JJ clusters in the city are not for drinking. (Express)

“These are heavy metals so they are carcinogenic. Cadmium can cause cancer of organs, including lungs and prostate. Lead can cause a type of anaemia where the haemoglobin is less. There is a permissible limit that the body can take out. Beyond that level, lead can cause iron deficiency. Presence of cadmium can also lead to kidney involvement. It can cause tubular defects in the kidney,” Dr Kakar added.

The samples were collected and submitted for testing on June 8 this year. They were tested by CATTS Labs, Okhla. An analysis of the results by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) flagged the following:

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Submersible pump: Very high amount of total dissolved solids (TDS), hardness, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, total alkalinity were above permissible limits.

Handpump 1: TDS, hardness, lead, cadmium were above permissible limits.

Handpump 2: TDS, hardness, lead, cadmium were above permissible limits.

“It is polluted groundwater,” said Shashank Shekhar, professor, Department of Geology, Delhi University, after he looked at the results. “It appears prima facie that one sample is very near to the landfill site. It is quite clear that leachate has entered the groundwater system close to the landfill, so TDS is high, around 4.5 times the permissible limit in the sample closer to the landfill. Chloride is very high, and sulphate, which can be from organic waste, is marginally high, total alkalinity is very high. There is cadmium and lead in the water… toxic metals which are both beyond the limits,” he said.

 

Dr Suranjit Chatterjee, senior consultant, Internal Medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, added, “All heavy metals are dangerous in high doses. They can be carcinogenic. If this water is used to grow vegetables, the vegetables can be contaminated. Sources of toxicity can be any way of ingestion, inhalation, or contact with skin of things contaminated with lead. In the long term, lead can affect all organs. It causes anaemia, it can cause kidney damage, neurological damage. It can cause developmental abnormalities in children. Cadmium can affect the kidneys and bones, and cause symptoms like fragile bones.”

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Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxics Link, said, “There are multiple sources of lead and cadmium since they are used in multiple products at home and in industrial processes. Plastic can be a big source, both lead and cadmium are used as stabilisers. When you dump a lot of plastic, it can leach over time. Electronic products dumped at the site, batteries, circuits in lights might have these metals. Pigments, paints all of these might have these metals. The areas around landfills also have informal sector operators who reprocess some of the waste.”

An official of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) said that piped water is available in the area only once in two days. He also said that water from handpumps that are located in some colonies or JJ clusters in the city are not for drinking. One of the handpumps (handpump 2 in the results) was installed by the DJB, an official confirmed. Handpump 1, however, was not installed by the DJB, and may have been set up privately, he added.

A list of questions was sent to the DJB, but no official response was available. S L Meena, Member (Water Supply), redirected questions to his secretary, who did not respond to calls or messages.

 

A list of questions was also sent to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). On whether the MCD has any plans to address the issue of groundwater contamination due to the landfill, a response from the MCD spokesperson said that the civic body has started biomining of legacy waste to clear the dumpsite. On whether the MCD is aware of groundwater contamination as a result of leachate from the Bhalswa landfill, the MCD said that there is no such study available with the department.
Life next door

Residents said they do not drink the groundwater, but since regular piped water supply is scarce in the area, tankers are the only recourse. Every day, residents line up with water cans, waiting for the tanker to arrive.

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Usha (53), from whose home water from the submersible pump was collected, said: “We fill around eight to nine 40-litre water cans for eight of us at home when the tanker comes. The submersible pump has helped because we can use that water to wash clothes and utensils. But we don’t drink the groundwater… namak hai (there is salt in the water). Two streets away, the groundwater will be sweeter. The water is like this here because of the waste dump.” She has been living in the area for 22 years, and the family got the submersible pump installed a few months ago, hoping to deal with the water shortage.

Most residents in the area said they rely on purchasing cans of drinking water. Yogesh (18), who lives near one of the handpumps from where water was collected, said the water is not potable. “The water is salty, so it’s used only to wash utensils or clothes and take bath. We buy cans of drinking water,” he said.

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“We got a water connection and meter placed four to five years ago. But there is no water in the pipes yet,” added Usha.

Reema, who has been living here for 11 years, also has a submersible pump at home, but the water from it is only used for cleaning, she said. “Water from the submersible pump smells bad sometimes… We buy cans for drinking water,” she added.

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“We have water connections and a pipeline, but the water comes only once in two days and that too just for two hours. Sometimes, that water is also dirty. Since the tanker water is also not too clean, we buy cans of water,” said Laxmi Mourya (25).

Explained

An endless loop

Bhalswa is one of three landfills in the city, the other two being at Okhla and Ghazipur. With waste processing facilities not being sufficient for the quantity of waste generated in the city, much of the waste ends up at the three landfill sites. The MCD is attempting to process the waste dumped at the landfills, but this is made more challenging by the daily dumping of fresh waste at the landfills. As of August 2020, the Bhalswa landfill was 54 m tall. Around 80 lakh tonnes of legacy waste was at Bhalswa as of July 2019.

Authorities need to dig deeper, say experts

The Bhalswa site, where unsegregated waste began to be dumped in 1994, had around 80 lakh tonnes of legacy waste spread over 70 acres as of 2019. The landfill itself is on the CPCB’s list of ‘contaminated sites’, with the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) having found cadmium, zinc and copper in soil samples collected from the site. The landfill does not have a system to collect leachate — liquid from the waste itself and rainwater that percolates through the landfill.

With the findings of the investigation of the water by The Indian Express, experts said further analysis by authorities will better help understand the problem.

“This raises questions, but a holistic assessment by an expert is needed to determine the parameters in the direction of groundwater flow,” said Prof Shekhar.

Sushmita Sengupta, Senior Programme Manager, CSE, said that a range of data, collected over the years, would further aid the analysis: “The presence of heavy metals means industrial pollution must be happening… some sort of leaching is happening into the soil, but whether it is because of the solid waste, we cannot be sure.”

Sengupta added: “We need to understand the source of this contamination. The only way out is to protect the groundwater from the contamination. Cleaning the aquifer is very costly. Once it’s contaminated with heavy metals or bacteriological contaminants, it’s very difficult to clean. But if the hardness or TDS level is high, recharge of groundwater can help in improving the quality.”

On the impact of the landfill on the groundwater, Shekhar said that household waste dumped at landfill sites contains easily dissolvable substances. “The leachate from the landfill contains dissolved solids in high concentrations. In a scientifically designed landfill, the leachate is drained out. If not, it settles at the bottom and starts interacting with the adjacent aquifer. Why else would the TDS levels be so high closer to the landfill?”

He added that calcium, magnesium, and chlorides are ions that are always present in groundwater. “But as you approach the landfill site, they become disproportionately high, and are exceptionally beyond the limit,” he explained.

The coliform in the water could be from sewage, he said. “Lead could be from household batteries, and cadmium also comes from metallurgical products, generally industrial sources,” he added.

On the raised parameters, Dr Kakar said, “Coliform is bacteria. If the level is high, it can cause intestinal problems like gastroenteritis or chronic diarrhoea. Hardness of water means that it may not be palatable.”

First published on: 03-10-2022 at 01:50:24 am
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