Water for life

waterHaving missed the industrial revolution, we have tried hard to catch up with the new-age industries, mainly Information Technology and Biotechnology. While the growth of IT in India is universally known, it is noteworthy that Indian pharmaceutical industry (a major part of biotech) ranks third in the world in terms of volume and fourteenth in terms of value. Well, lesser known is the fact, that until recently, there existed a river in Hyderabad where a single dip could make you immune to most diseases – and a second dip could have killed you.

Due to the intense western pressure to hold down prescription drug prices, the production of active pharmaceutical ingredients – compounds sold in bulk to be used in making pills and capsules – boomed for years in India. The growth of Indian pharmaceutical industry occurred mainly around Hyderabad, after the Patents Act of 1970 made a distinction between product and process patents in India. Using the knowledge pool of India, within decades, Hyderabad emerged as one of the worlds largest centers for bulk drug production. The drugs from here were, and are still being exported to major markets all across the world.

The pharmaceutical manufacturing units were concentrated in the Patancheru area of the city. The story was all flowery, until it was realized, that in the global pharma industry, the environmental, human, and social costs have been greatly overlooked. In the surrounding areas – abortion rates and skin diseases increased greatly, stunted growth was reported in children. Patancheru, unknowingly had become the home to the most drug polluted water in the world.

A Swedish research team led by Joakim Larsson from the University of Gothenburg conducted a study on the levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the water discharged from the Patancheru Enviro Tech Limited (PETL) – an old and outdated common effluent treatment plant in the Patancheru area of Hyderabad which treated the discharge from around 90 bulk drug manufacturing units located in the area. The shocking results of the study, which were published in 2009, revealed the presence of very high levels of antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin and Cetirizine. In one place, the levels were found to exceed that of human blood plasma concentrations. The water, consumed and used by about 2 lakh people of the area was a floating medicine cabinet – a soup of 21 different active pharmaceutical ingredients!

One of the scientists quoted – “If you take a bath there, then you have all the antibiotics you need for any treatment. The question is for how long?” The biggest concern was whether the discharge from the waste-water treatment facility was spawning drug resistance. The treated effluent from PETL was getting discharged into the Iskkavagu stream, which then flows into the Nakkavagu river. The Nakkavagu river then runs into the Manjeera river (the drinking water source for Hyderabad, with a population of 6.3 million) which ultimately joins the Godavari river.

By accident or design, the administrative boundary of Pocharam gram panchayat ended a few feet before the treatment plant. The treatment plant fell in the jurisdiction of the GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation). Although topographically the village and the treatment plant were contiguous, they are governed by different laws. The villagers had to travel to Hyderabad for even the smallest of matter concerning the plant.

Well, after years of fighting and activism, in 2010, all effluents from the Patancheru water plant started getting diverted through a pipeline to a larger treatment plant 18 kilometers away. That reduced Patancheru’s pollution problems simply by diverting the effluents, still drug-laced but diluted, into a different river. The problem, although reduced, very much exists even today!

Pharmaceutical breach into drinking water is not just a problem in India. Concentrations of pharmaceuticals have been found in drinking water provided to at least 46 million Americans. But the waste-water from Patancheru contained 150 times the highest levels detected in the U.S. Drug factories in the U.S. and Europe have strictly enforced waste treatment processes. But, with lesser infrastructure for greater profits, this has become a dire situation, being faced by many developing countries across the world.

May it be Taiwan, China, Korea or the USA, it is a global problem! The concern is not limited to merely small areas, but to as far as bacterias can go. In water treatment plants, bacteria-laden human wastes mingle with high concentrations of antibiotic compounds. The effluents that emerge, can mutate and breed bacteria that are resistant to treatment by multiple drugs – potentially triggering global health emergencies.

Drug resistance, although the scariest, is not the only problem of these treatment plants. Downstream from factories, entire aquatic ecosystems are at risk. Even extremely diluted concentrations of drug residues harm the reproductive systems of fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Humans, consuming these wastes are also prone to numerous water borne diseases.

Speaking of solutions, yes they are very much available, although expensive. Treatment of effluents with ozone, ultraviolet light, or activated carbon can break down drug compounds. But profit driven manufacturers have, over the years opposed such additional processing that would increase their costs. Recently, Swedish government has proposed an official ‘good manufacturing practices‘ which are required of all facilities that produce drugs for sale in Europe, be amended to mandate pollution control, wherever the production takes place.

Such policies can only be pushed down by the governments across the world, driven by active citizen activism. It’s high time people, governments and businesses understand that when they use words like ‘one world’, ‘equality’ and ‘justice’, it is equally important they avoid doing grave harm on one side of the world while doing good on the other, especially when the world is too small and fragile to be destroyed.

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