Thursday, 1 June 2017

Third Law #1: It's more than just collateral damage

Chennai, June 1, 2017: It’s over 30 hours – since the wee hours of Wednesday – that fire fighters have been taking efforts to put out the flames that raged in the seven-storey building of The Chennai Silks, textile and jewellery shop along South Usman Road in T Nagar here in Chennai.

The building is said to have been stocked up on tonnes of polyester, linen, rexin and nylon cloth materials. And this turned the fire into noxious smoke that enveloped T Nagar and its neighbouring areas till Kodambakkam, Choolaimedu, Aminjikarai and Nungambakkam. The smoke will affect people residing in these neighbourhoods, according to environmental activists and chemical engineers, with whom I interacted immediately after witnessing the seriousness of the issue right at the accident spot. I could see a dense plume of smoke coming out from the building as the fire fighters were involving in dousing the flame. All that immediately struck my mind was the source of this smoke. Yes!, it was from polyester and other synthetic clothing materials.

I apparently tried to get a full picture of the effects that can be caused by the smoke in the ecosystem of T.Nagar and contacted Navaneethan, a chemist based out of the city. Making my hypothesis true, he told, “There could be at least 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of synthetic clothing materials like nylon, polyester and linen stocked in the shop. All these materials are different kinds of polymers and so their effects will be similar to what happens when plastic is burnt.’”

Navaneethan alerted that the smoke from the fire in the textile shop could have toxic gases like chloro fluoro carbons (CFCs), dioxins and carbon monoxide. This might cause health problems for people in and around the neighbourhood as they inhale these gases, he said.

Following this, I contacted Engineer K Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental awareness NGO (this NGO has been battling against the government and corporate in various environmental threats including Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant and Neutrino project of Indian government in Tamil Nadu), said, “We have been following the problem since Wednesday morning as we were already aware of its effects. Surely, this is going to have an intense consequences on the health of the people in the neighbourhood. The Corporation should rush relief measures for this.”

Sundarrajan said inhalation of carbon monoxide and dioxin will cause lung disorders and sometimes even leukemia. “It is a very aggressive carcinogen. Already, Chennai has the unofficial status of being the lung cancer capital of India, and now, this fire accident is going to swell that number,” said Sundarrajan.

I further asked him on what measures should be taken by the city Corporation for which Sundarrajan said, “First it is the pollution control board that has to set up a carbon emission level monitoring device to check the amount of all particulate matters in the atmosphere of T Nagar. This device has to be put in the public domain so that people will be aware of the hazard they are in.”

Sundarrajan also listed out some valuable suggestions to the city corporation. 'The corporation should alert all doctors in small clinics to large hospitals in the neighbourhood of T Nagar, Nungambakkam and Kodambakkam to maintain a separate record of all breathing and lung related cases they deal with'. He said that, for the next couple of weeks, these records have to interpreted whether any lung disorders have occurred in the people. 'People with low immunity have to be diagnosed with more seriousness', he added.

When I tried contacting some top officials of the Greater Chennai Corporation, they refused to comment on the issues. However, the corporation is already set to initiate relief measures to control the effects of smoke.

Sources from the Corporation informed me that a team of doctors is all set to diagnose any kind of breathing problem among the locals. Similarly, the police department has asked people to relocate to other places for the time being until the smoke disappears.

In a related development, social worker Traffic Ramaswamy, who visited the accident spot on Wednesday, was arguing with the fire department and corporation officials who were involved in the process of putting off the fire.

I had a chance to interact with him for a couple of seconds during which he said, “None of the top officials from the corporation or the fire department is present here to address the issue. It is all because they were the ones who permitted this building to come up after all violations. So, they are answerable to me and the public. I am going to move the court and will deal with everything legally.”

This fire accident is not new to T Nagar, as it had always witnessed such disasters in the past. With a number of allegations claiming such accidents to be man-made, by the owners of the textile and jewelry outlets, for whitening their black wealth, these kinds of accidents still happen at least once in three years apparently.

- Santhosh Mathevan
Photos by: R Thiyagarajan, News Today

This column, 'Third Law' will feature current affairs that breaks out to be the news of any day. In this column, I will try to figure out and put to the public debate, the reactions of any incident that might cause some serious effects on the society. Because, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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