Iron ore-laden trucks rumbling through Belekeri and its nearby towns and villages, trailing dust clouds that carry fine particulate matter, have caused a disturbing trend: Five years ago the number of people suffering from asthma was only 29; today, the total number of asthma patients in and around Belekeri has shot up 120 times to over 3,500.
Reports prepared by the office of the district health officer (DHO) in Karwar clearly reveal that iron ore dust, which hundreds of trucks haul from several mining operations in Bellary, has transformed the air quality for the worse, leaving an increasing number of people in villages like Belekeri, Hattikere, Bavikere and Aversa in Ankola taluk with several respiratory ailments, including asthma.
According to former Uttara Kannada DHO Dr S D Auradi, who was instrumental in undertaking studies that established the causal relationship between iron ore dust and asthma, the reports reveal the number of reported cases in government primary health centres. While the total population of the four villages is about 12,000, as many as 30 per cent of the people have been stricken by asthma over the past five years.
Concerned over the quantum jump in the number of asthma patients, health officials in the district are now planning conducting a house-to-house survey to assess the real impact of iron ore not just on the people but also the ambient air quality. Asthma and other associated lung problems are caused by high concentration of pollutants in the air.
Speaking to Deccan Herald, Dr M M Sayed of Canara Medical Centre in Belekeri said he feared that the number of asthma patients would be far more than the reported 3,500 cases since, according to him, several more might be undergoing treatment in private hospitals.
Sayed, who attends to about 10 asthma cases everyday, said: “The residents of Belekeri continue to suffer because of the export activities.”
The cases he has diagnosed suggests that the patients suffer from sleeplessness.
“How can people sleep when trucks pass down the single-lane road that cuts through the villages 24/7? Only the monsoon brings some respite because truck movements remain suspended at that time,” Sayed said.
Stressing the need for a thorough scientific study to know the cause of the ailments, Sayed disclosed that over the past year, no less than ten people living close to the road underwent surgery after complaining of serious cardiac problems.
The consignments of ore carried by the trucks are not properly covered. The trucks track ore, mud and debris on the road where they dry and turn to dust that is stirred by other vehicles.
That dust coats houses and is thought to cuase respiratory and other ailments.
Karnataka State Pollution Control Board regional environment officer Gopala Krishna S said: “Because of high humidity, dust is less in coastal belts, but the situation in Belekeri is not so.
Air quality tests
Tests show that the concentration of particulate matter in the air is alarmingly higher than the permissible limit”. The ambient air quality tests conducted by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board at Belekeri show that the concentration of respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and suspended particulate matter (spm) in air is high (see box).
Gopala Krishna said that besides affecting humans, ore dust may potentially cause death of sea fish.
After the export of iron ore via Belekeri port began in 2004, there has been sporadic resistance to the heavy movement of trucks along the belt. The villagers have demanded that the exporters lay a by-pass off National Highway-63 so that trucks do not ply through the villages.
The exporters, of course, paid no heed. Nearly 4,000 trucks carry iron ore to Belekeri port every day during October and May. But the trucking and export activities remain suspended between June and September when the region experiences heavy rains.
Following complaints from the public and the Pollution Control Board, which voiced fears that ore particles could settle on the sea surface, the Karwar deputy commissioner suspended export operations during the monsoon.
A few Belekeri residents told Deccan Herald that the exporters buy the silence of some residents who live on the road the trucks follow to reach the port.
“These people get about Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 a month and if others refuse to accept money they are branded enemies,” one Belekeri resident said.