‘Growing toxicity of heavy metalsposing serious health risks’
Experts call for greater awareness, new laws and stricter implementation of policies and standards
Karachi: Heavy metals in the environment such as lead or arsenic as well as the improper disposal of hospital waste is leading to a growing number of health-related complications in Pakistan.
This was stated by environmentalists and experts at a seminar on environmental degradation and its impact on human health at the Aga Khan University.
Policymakers and environmental health experts called for greater awareness, new legislation and stricter implementation of policies and standards to improve the situation.
The seminar on environmental degradation and health impacts — research and policy — was organised by the Department of Community Health Sciences’ Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the AKU in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, Sindh.
Addressing the seminar via video link, a professor for the Department of Epidemiology for School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dr Nalini Sathiakumar, said Pakistan’s efforts toward economic development had taken precedence over environmental issues, especially water pollution, and negatively impacted both.
“Extensive waterlogging of arable land along with deforestation and destruction of 80 percent of rangeland has resulted in huge economic losses,” she said.
Underground water is the main source of drinking water in Pakistan. As surface water is affected by biological agents and underground water by chemical agents, it poses a serious issue of clean drinking water.
“Arsenic is one of the chemicals widely present in underground water along the River Indus in Pakistan,” said Dr Zafar Fatmi of the AKU.
According to his study published in 2009 titled ‘Health burden of skin lesions at low arsenic exposure through groundwater in Pakistan. Is river the source?’, there is a direct link to the levels of arsenic present in some wells within close proximity of the River Indus to skin lesions and other medical complications.
The research was conducted in the Khairpur district.
Some safer wells, with arsenic within acceptable limits, exist in the area. The wells need to be identified and marked with colours such as red for unsafe and green indicating it is safe for consumption, he advised.
Since digging new wells can be costly, Dr Fatmi suggested that people switch to safe wells and use the contaminated wells for other needs such as washing clothes.
“If there is a contaminated well in one village, odds are there will be a safe well within 100 metres but villagers are unwilling to either walk or use another well if it lies in the next village due to ethnic or tribal differences,” he explained.
While complications due to arsenic poisoning surface in 10 to 15 years, they include severe health consequences.
“Arsenic poisoning is particularly dangerous as it targets all cells and organs of the body and includes complications and/or cancer of the liver, lung, kidney, bladder and other cardiovascular diseases and even diabetes,” Dr Fatmi said.
Speaking on prenatal lead exposure in Pakistan, Dr Muhammad Masood Kadir said lead present in the maternal bone was transferred to the foetus or child leading to health complications.
“Our concern with lead poisoning is with continuous low levels of exposure which accumulates over time and can lead to damage to the nervous system and cognition for children.”
Dr Kadir shared data from his recent study on lead poisoning after testing 500 mothers belonging to low socio-economic backgrounds across Karachi.
“Most mothers were unaware of what lead poisoning is and 95 percent of mothers and children tested were over 5µg/dl,” he explained.
Under 5µg/dl is considered relatively safe but now researchers say even levels below this may have some adverse consequences.
“The focus is now on a home-based study where sources of lead include paint, relatively cheaper utensils made of aluminum mixed alloys and even commercially available surma,” Kadir said.
Meanwhile, improper hospital waste management has compounded the issue of environmental degradation.
“As there is no proper system…the issue has deteriorated to a great extent, especially in Karachi,” said Waqar Hussain Phulpoto, the director (technical) for the Environmental Protection Agency Sindh.
But with the health ministry devolved to the provinces, a revision of policies and procedures was in the pipeline, said Imran Sabir, environmental impact assessment expert for the EPA Sindh.