The Sunday Leader

Rapid Industrialisation, Hospitals Pose Risk To Environment

by Ifham Nizam 

Urban Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka and Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director, Hemantha Withanage

Scientists, environmentalists and organisations that fight for the basic rights of people praised Urban Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka for coming out boldly on the fact that lakes and rivers are polluted islandwide due to hospital waste.

However, they fear despite the Minister’s bold initiative to counter such action hospitals islandwide would continue to dump their mercury and discard chemicals and other waste to water bodies.

Ranawaka told parliament how national hospitals are polluting the Beira and Kandy lakes.

He said that the Colombo National hospital is one reason for the Beira Lake being polluted and the Kandy General hospital is part of the reasons behind the Kandy Lake being polluted.

The Minister said both hospitals dump waste in the lake which damages the environment.

He said an effective garbage disposal system must be put in place to deal with the garbage in Colombo.

However, environmentalists point out despite repeated discussions nothing concrete had taken place. “For decades… we were discussing such issues…I would say about that there has been a  10 per cent improvement especially due to some painstaking medical officers,” an environmental scientist said.

Meanwhile, another official pointed out that risks involved in the rapid industrialisation around the Kelani river region were realised decades ago.

After a major killing of fish in the early 1980’s, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and CISIR conducted a preliminary survey on the industrial pollution of the Kelani River in 1985; 21 factories were identified and individual studies were done on each.

Later in 1994 an “An Environmental Assessment of the Bay of Bengal Region” was done by the FAO which included a study of the industries in the Export Processing Zones and their capacity for pollution. In 1998 the “Pavithra Ganga” programme was initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and a pilot project was implemented on the Kelani river.

Since then the water quality of the Kelani has continued to decline due to improper waste management. Households have constructed sewage lines into the river along with agricultural waste and created dumping grounds along its banks. Apart from the Biyagama Export Processing Zone, over 70 industries currently operate along the Kelani River. Pollutants consisting of oils, grease, chromium and carcinogenic toxins are released into the river by these industries. In addition to this pollution the extensive sand mining taking place along the Kelani has resulted in sea water intrusion into the river and erosion of the river banks. This in turn has increased the risk of floods along the river.

The relevant stakeholders and officials must come together to formulate a policy to protect the Kelani river and the millions of people from around Colombo, it’s suburbs and areas upstream whose lives depend upon it.

Chemical waste, hospitals and everyday household products such as: – Paint – Disinfectants – Cosmetics – Furniture polish – Pesticides – Chemical fertilizer – Wet/ used battery cells Contain toxic chemicals which are released into the environment every day, a scientist said. Whether it is washed away into the drainage or diluted and absorbed into the soil, the chemicals will reach the river through the sewage system or travel across the surface during rain. These chemicals enter the human body when people come in contact with or drink water from the river and can cause skin allergies and diseases.

The first step to tackling this problem would be to reduce the quantity of chemicals in the household and only buy what is needed.


Safe Storage 

Read the label and follow the instructions for storage and use.

Do not transfer chemicals from its original container to other containers, especially used plastic bottles, as most chemicals are volatile.

Avoid storing them close to the kitchen and keep in dry, ventilated areas. Although some chemicals may seem essential to day to day life it is possible to substitute them with healthier and environmentally friendly alternatives.  Using chemical fertilizers to grow fruit and vegetables is another way in which harmful toxins enter humans.

This can be easily substituted with organic fertilizer and homemade compost (Refer page Household Composting, Biodegradable Waste).


Mercury to be wiped out?


Under a policy initiative of the government, recently the Ministry of Health and the Central Environment Authority (CEA) instructed Provincial Councils and all hospitals countrywide, to phase out Mercury thermometers and blood pressure monitors, in keeping with a previously planned move. Officials point out that although it went well for a few months, once again some hospitals officials had resorted to their previous action dumping waste for their convenience often in water bodies.

The official said as government regulators, they have given clear instructions to hospitals and other relevant institutions to resist from purchasing medical equipment that contains mercury, in the future.

He added that they have also instructed the Cosmetics and Devices Department to prevent the many facial and whitening creams that are high in mercury from being sold to the public.

He expressed confidence that by the year 2020, the country would be free of all products that contain mercury.


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