``When we started out the study there was no coronavirus. We were looking at the health impacts of the coal-fired thermal plants," said Dr Prabir Chatterjee, Executive Director SHRC.
Chattisgarh’s State Health Resource Centre (SHRC), a registered society funded by the Chattisgarh government, had submitted a report to the state government last week assessing the health impact on communities in Korba living near coal-fired thermal plants. The study found that the population living near the thermal plants has greater exposure to particulate matter resulting in higher respiratory illnesses, making them a vulnerable group to Covid 19.
Funded by the Centre for Chronic Diseases Control, New Delhi, and carried out in collaboration with PGI Chandigarh, the three year study was meant to look at the environmental impact of thermal power plants and its health fallout on local communities. But the study, say officials, which was initiated in 2017, was fast tracked and submitted to the Chattisgarh government in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
``When we started out the study there was no coronavirus. We were looking at the health impacts of the coal-fired thermal plants. We found that there were a higher level of respiratory diseases among communities living in villages around Korba – as much as 15 per cent. This opposed to 5 per cent of the community in Katghora, twenty kilometres away from Korba, suffering from respiratory diseases. So while most of us will get the virus, this extremely vulnerable group will have a far tougher time battling the disease, and will in all probability be cases who will need to be admitted to ICUs in case of an outbreak here, thus increasing the pressure on ICU beds,’’said Dr Prabir Chatterjee, Executive Director SHRC.
Korba, the power capital of Chhattisgarh has more than 10 coal-fired thermal power plants producing 6000 MW of electricity. It also holds world’s second largest open cast coal mines, Gevra, and other major open cast coal mines such as Kusmunda mines and Dipka mines. The city is located approximately 200km from Raipur. Korba also has the nefarious distinction of being ranked fifth among the 'critically polluted area' category among 88 industrial clusters in a study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2009.
This cross-sectional study compares samples from exposed populations living within a 10 km radius of the power plants in Korba while the second group of samples has been taken from Katghora. The findings of the study show ``significantly elevated prevalence of respiratory diseases’’ like asthma, which was 11.79 per cent of the population, and bronchitis, which was 2.96 per cent oft eh exposed community. Both diseases were at 5.46 per cent and 0.99 per cent respectively in the unexposed group in Katghora, ``Thereby establishing the higher disease burden in communities residing around thermal power plants,’’says the study.
The study has found that at five locations out of nine, PM 2.5 levels were above the statutory limits of 60 ug/m3 as prescribed by the Union Environment Ministry, by almost five times. The study further states that presence of heavy metals has been found in the dust, levels of manganese exceeded permissible limits by six times and traces of lead and arsenic have also been found.
The testing of ewater samples have been found to have aluminium concentrations higher than permissible limits while the surface water has manganese beyond the permissible limit. Heavy metal pollution Index was reported for all locations. Heavy metal concentrations have similarly been found in soil samples.
``We have made a slew of recommendations to the Chattisgarh government such as providing spirometers, to assess respiratory disorders, in district hospital’s, to begin with. And then give them to primary and secondary health care centres. Our survey was conducted by ANMs and Asha workers operating in the area, and we equipped them with spirometers, so it can be done,’’added Dr.Chatterjee.
Incidentally, in March 2018, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy identified 34 power plants as non-performing assets. Korba West was one of them with a total stranded value of Rs 4929 crore of which Rs 3099 crore was debt and Rs 1830 crore equity.