Is trash from Gurugram and Faridabad in Bandhwari landfill leading to cancer?

Locals estimate that there have been at least 100 cancer-related deaths in the region since 2013, after a fire mishap left the waste management plant at the Bandhwari landfill defunct.

Pollution from the Bandhwari landfill, situated 20 kms away from Gurugram, has triggered a public health crisis in surrounding villages. Residents of Bandhwari, Manger and Dera – settlements near the landfill – have reported a high incidence of cancer with the residents alleging that an average of 15 to 16 people have been losing their lives to the disease each year.

While there is no official data to corroborate their claims, most residents in these villages knew someone who was suffering from, or has died of cancer.

Locals estimate that there have been at least 100 cancer-related deaths in the region since 2013, after a fire mishap left the waste management plant at the Bandhwari landfill defunct. The municipal corporations of Gurugram and Faridabad have since continued to dump over a 1,000 tonnes of untreated municipal waste at the site daily. “This is in violation of multiple legal mandates, such as the Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2000, Plastic Waste Rules of 2011, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, and the Forest Act of 2006,” said Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer who practices with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment.

The Hindustan Times independently verified at least 13 instances of cancer-related deaths in Bandhwari village (which has a population of 4,104 individuals, according to the Census 2011), that have taken place in the last eight months. Another three individuals, Angrez Singh, Hari Kishan and Sunita Dayanand, are undergoing treatment for the disease. At least eight other cancer deaths have been reported from nearby villages of Manger, Dera, Baliyawas and Gwal Pahadi in recent years, of which five took place in the last six months.

Angrez Singh, 70, a resident of Bandhwari, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. ( Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO )

According to Roop Chand, a local from nearby Mandi Village, who is a retired army doctor and cancer survivor, contaminated groundwater is responsible for the problem. “Toxic leachate from the landfill has seeped into the water supply, which the locals have been consuming for years. Now, incidents of cancer are being detected, and will only increase in the coming years,” he said.

On May 8, 2018, an informal survey to ascertain the nature and extent of cancer prevalence was conducted by Chand and another local, Karam Singh Tanwar, whose wife Rakam Wati died of gall bladder cancer in January this year. “We managed to identify at least a dozen families in Bandhwari who have lost a member to cancer over the last year and a half,” said Tanwar. Cancer of the lungs, gall bladder, throat and stomach were most common, they said.

On May 24, the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram conducted a cancer screening camp in response to the public health scare, where one surgeon, one ear-nose-throat specialist, one gynecologist, a physician, and a dental surgeon were present. Of the 247 people tested, 27 were found to be suffering from hypertension and another six from diabetes mellitus. A subsequent press release dismissed any possibility of a cancer outbreak. Dr. Asrudin, Chief Medical Officer (Gurugram), said, “We screened over 200 people and only two individuals tested positive for cancer. These cases are not related to the local pollution.”

Locals, however, agree with Chand’s hypotheses, and blame groundwater contamination for the alleged epidemic. “At one point, the water from our wells used to be sweet. Now, we cannot drink it anymore,” said Lala Ram, resident of Bandhwari, showing HT a container of borewell water. A thin, oily film had formed on the surface. “See that? That’s all pollution,” Lala Ram said. “This did not happen before. It is all because of the landfill,” he added.

A natural well in Bandhwari village which has been shut after drying up due to depleting groundwater levels. ( Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO )

A 2015 survey by Rekha Singh, an environment expert approved by the Quality Council of India (Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change), found that both surface and groundwater in the area were highly polluted. “Concentrations of contaminants like fluoride, cadmium, mercury and magnesium all exceeded the safe limits, making the groundwater unsuitable for drinking,” Singh said.

Singh also tested samples from a leachate pond inside the landfill, and found that the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water were 6950 mg/l, which is much higher than the prescribed limit of 2100mg/l, according to the Muncipal Waste Management Rules, 2000. “The contamination from the leachate pond has started polluting the groundwater, causing serious fluoride, phenolic compound, cadmium and mercury poisoning. It may cause serious health effects to the user,” Singh said in her report.

A primary reason for the contamination of groundwater is improper waste management inside the landfill. Activist Vivek Kamboj explained that the landfill is in direct contact with the soil, which would allow the leachate to percolate into the ground. “According to rules, the trash needs to be isolated from the landfill bed using low volume plastic. However, the soil at the bottom of the pit is completely exposed, and this compromises the quality of water on which locals rely every day,” he said. The MCG in 2015 constructed a concrete boundary wall to prevent leachate run off, but it is now damaged in several places, worsening the problem of contaminant outflow to local water bodies.

As a cautionary measure, more and more residents are switching to RO filters to clean their drinking water. However, majority of the villagers who cannot afford it, continue to rely on groundwater supply. Even those with RO systems still bathe and wash dishes with groundwater, which is also fed to the cattle, whose milk is then consumed by residents.

Another survey, submitted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) last year, echoed Singh’s report in that the groundwater in Bandhwari is unsuitable for drinking. The CPCB report also found exceedingly high volumes of boron, manganese, iron, chlorides and nitrates, the carcinogenic effects of which have been documented in medical literature.

Dr. Suman Kumari, who has been posted in Bandhwari since 2012, says women have become particularly susceptible to gynaecological problems. ( Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO )

In addition to cancer, doctors in Bandhwari have also reported an alarming increase in gastric, respiratory and skin ailments. “Skin lesions, bloody diarrhoea, irritation of eyes and throat… these have become commonplace and chronic,” said Milon Bakshi, who operates the Bengali Clinic, a private dispensary in Bandhwari.

Women also have become particularly susceptible to gynecological problems. Suman Kumari, a doctor with the Department of AYUSH, Haryana, who has been posted in Bandhwari since 2012, said, “I have seen an increasing number of female patients suffering from irregular periods, polycystic ovarian disorder, excessive bleeding and abdominal pain. I also see more children complaining of chronic headaches, diarrhoea, and nausea.” Most of Kumari’s patients are poor and cannot afford healthcare outside the village. Lack of access to healthcare, Kumari says, is only exacerbating the problem.

The villagers, however, have become increasingly distrusting of the district administration. “Before the landfill came up, many of us had never even heard of cancer. Now, if anyone gets even slightly ill, we get alarmed. The MCG says the landfill has nothing to do with it, but in that case they should at least help us find out what is wrong.” said Vinod Bhardwaj, 32, a Bandhwari resident.

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