Lead toxicity from underground metallic sheaths, A clear and present danger!

December 19 2018

Sterlite Power

A shroud of pollution has Delhi/NCR in a chokehold and panic is rising as breathable air quality is deteriorating every day. Both, the Government and citizens alike have been jolted out of their complacency to take immediate action as the air quality index plummets.

Hectic parleys have taken place in the corridors of power in the national capital and citizens beleaguered by pollution and smog are actively organising themselves to raise awareness and participation towards a clean air campaign. However, it is hard to ignore the fact, that the activism and rising consciousness on air pollution, was sparked only after air quality reached hazardous levels and the smog density became too visible to ignore. In the recent past, it has been widely reported in the media that hospitals are filling up with a sharp 30-40 % spike in respiratory diseases. In this scenario, one could argue that token gestures of activism at this juncture, are perhaps, too little too late.  

Proactive cognisance of a hazardous situation and action by the Government, are a must for sustainable development. In this context, it is important to note that there is a potentially graver danger lurking just beneath the surface, that is also widely being ignored. To avoid committing the same mistake of apathy and complacency, as in the case of air pollution, there is a need for swift and urgent action to deal with the danger of Lead toxicity. If corrective action is not taken to stem Lead exposure to our health and environment immediately, the damage caused may well be irreversible.

The scale of Lead toxicity is corroborated by World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. 240 million people globally are overexposed to lead poisoning and 99% of those who blood levels above 20 µg/dL are from the developing world. Low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest burden of lead exposure

In India, ironically, Government action on Lead toxicity that captured the public imagination, was only in the instance of the 2015 recall of Maggie noodles, when a Lab claimed that lead levels were above permissible limits in the samples. For all the hue and cry over the issue, lead levels reportedly measured then, were only in the parts per million levels (ppm).

Now, imagine this! Lead is being buried, in tonnage levels, by state run utilities, and citizens are blissfully unaware of a quietly brewing health and environmental crisis. There is no Government investigation into this issue, no public outcry and no campaigns to get this to stop. So, the question is how is this being allowed to happen?

India is witnessing rapid urbanisation and there is an urgent need to electrify homes and businesses. To meet this demand for power, most cities opt for underground power cables which have Lead sheaths in them. Worryingly, they opt for this, despite the availability of greener alternatives in underground power cables, that come with aluminium sheathing. These sheaths are used to insulate the conductors in the power cables and as an earthing for capacitive current that passes through insulation. Underground power cables have an average life span of 25-30 years. Once they are laid, they are never dismantled, since it is not economically viable to remove them or dispose them off. As a result, a huge amount of Lead is lying buried underground and probably seeping into the soil, the water tables and the ecosystem, undetected. This is particularly distressing with the availability of greener alternatives that perform just as efficiently, if not more, as Lead sheaths and are 30-40 % cheaper.

Given the awareness about the hazards of Lead toxicity in the last decade, there is an urgent need to completely move away from the use of Lead sheaths.  Most players in the power sector are aware of this danger and have actively moved away to greener alternatives, among them are also a couple of State Utilities-Maharashtra and Punjab, who have been proactive in this regard. But other State utilities like Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Bihar are still lagging in making this crucial transition. Given their size and scale of activities, this is a serious cause for concern.

On an average, over the last decade, as per available estimates, a single state utility alone, could have buried close to 8000 MT tonnes of Lead, by using lead sheaths in underground power cables. It is important to note, that all manufacturers of Lead sheaths also have captive capacity and infrastructure already in place to manufacture greener alternatives. The only reason that it is not happening, is because there is no push for this on part of the Government, with Utilities being the end consumers. It is the sheer lack of Government will at this point, that stands between the spectre of lead toxicity and a transition to greener alternatives for state run Utilities.

Clearly, there is an urgent need to take cognisance of this issue, which for decades has possibly already caused enough damage to our health and environment. It is time to stop further damage, educate users of these products and actively encourage them to move away from these potentially toxic lead sheaths, in the best interests of the nation. India is in the cusp of rapid industrialisation with its Smart Cities mission. A shift to greener alternatives is a must for a sustainable and healthy future.