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Oil spill in Chennai: volunteers’ health tarred, report says

Spilled oil can on a beach. Copyright: <a href=''>sablin / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Oil spills are staining both the local environment and the health of locals and volunteers participating in the clean-up effort.

Locals and volunteers will require treatment for long-term health effects following the oil spill in Chennai, recent reports suggest.

MT BW Maple – a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanker – and MT Dawn Kanchipuram – a petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) tanker – collided in the early hours of January 28, 2017. The collision took place two nautical miles off of Kamarajar Port in the Ennore neighbourhood of Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu. It is believed to have been caused by human error.

Port authorities initially said that an oil spill did not occur. In an official statement, the port said there was no environmental damage such as oil pollution. However, this turned out not to be the case.

At least seventy tonnes of oil have been removed from the Ennore coast as a consequence of the incident. Port authorities are yet to confirm the official amount. 

“Clearly, safety was not a priority”

An estimated 5,700 people were involved in the cleanup efforts. However, some are expressing concern that participants were may have exposed them to long-term health risks.

A report was published on February 21 after research was conducted in the areas affected by the oil spill. It recommends that authorities monitor the health of those affected. The report notes that health issues arising as a result of the oil spill “can take years to manifest themselves.” It states that this necessitates pre-emptive actions by the authorities. This entails “immediate medical check-ups” on those affected as well as continued monitoring in the near future.

Exacerbating the problem is the manner in which the cleanup was conducted. There was seemingly little regard for the safety of those involved; precautionary measures were not taken and the proper equipment was not provided. 

Many of those who helped clear the oil spill…did not have proper safety equipment and did not even know the ramifications” notes Dr. Shruthee SG, quoted in the Hindustan Times. Environmental activist Shweta Narayan speaks in more vivid terms, having observed “volunteers who were cleaning up the oil spill in t-shirts and shorts, without gloves or even a mask.” Striking an accusatory chord, she adds “clearly, safety was not a priority.”

“Passing the buck”

The oil-spill could have been a thousand times worse. Even so, many are accusing the authorities of incompetence. The Indian Express called their response “sluggish.” Firstpost accused governing agencies of “trying to hide the problem rather than focus on solutions.” In a separate editorial, they highlighted the contradictory statements of five officials as indicative of state departments “[passing] the buck” and thus stalling progress. A Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) official was quoted as saying “the reason for the slow work is because there is no clarity about which department should foot the bill.”

This mismanagement is concerning to say the least, and seems to be manifesting in a dogged but shamefully unsafe and ill-equipped cleanup process that is endangering lives.

Direct contact with oil is hazardous to human health, in both the short and long term. This is because of the chemical composition of oil, which consists of thousands of compounds. Among these are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause severe long-term health problems when present in large concentrations, being linked to certain forms of cancer such as leukaemia. The toxic compounds in oil can also lead to respiratory problems, headaches, chronic body pain, heart disease, and irritation of the skin.

Safeguarding participants in the cleanup effect against the injurious effects of the oil spill – as well as local residents, whose exposure to the oil leaves them susceptible to the health risks – ought to be the first priority of the relevant authorities, rather than assigning blame or burying their heads in the sand, as some say they are doing.

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