Serious lapse

The incident in which six persons in Delhi — a scrap dealer and his employees — were affected by cobalt radiation exposes the problem of radioactive contamination which can seriously damage health and even cause deaths. The men who handled a sealed lead scrap, which had landed in their shop as hospital waste, are now fighting for their lives. The scrap is considered to have contained cobalt-60, a highly radioactive material used for medical and industrial purposes. It is ironical that the incident happened just before a world summit on nuclear security. Cobalt radiation is not as dangerous as that from high-end nuclear material but it belongs to the same class. There have been many warnings about the shoddy use of radioactive material. The Delhi incident may have been the most serious one to occur in India to date.

The source of the dangerous scrap has not yet been identified. It is mandatory to track the movements of the cobalt-60 isotope but in practice this is not done properly. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has the responsibility for tracking and holding inspections. Failure in doing this leads to the material landing in the scrap market or elsewhere. Less dangerous radioactive and electronic waste enters scrap shops and other places through discarded parts of many gadgets and equipment. Toxic emissions from substances like lead, mercury and cadmium pollute the environment and cause damage to human health. There is no general awareness about the danger posed by them. There is no expertise either in most places to handle and recycle them. The laws about disposal of electronic waste are inadequate in India. Many other countries have strict legislation and handling practices. Waste from such countries also land illegally in India.

What has happened in Delhi is more serious than contamination caused by electronic waste. It is necessary to investigate and find out the source of the material and take strict action against those who disposed of it and those who failed to track its course. And if it was brought illegally into the country, it shows that the system to check and prevent the import of dangerous material was not working well. It is more important to strengthen the regulatory regime so that such incidents do not occur again. The extensive use of cobalt-60 makes surveillance difficult but there cannot be excuses like shortage of manpower and facilities in matters concerning life and health.

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