When the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) found high levels of uranium in fertiliser and soil samples from the Malwa region of Punjab last week, activists in the area were not surprised. They have long been warning about environmental contamination due to excessive phosphate fertiliser use.
Local reports indicated that BARC found uranium concentration of around 91.77 ppm in di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and 2.92 ppm in single super phosphate (SSP) fertilisers in samples sent by the Punjab Agriculture University’s (PAU) Soil and Science Department (SSD).
Industry sources, however, denied fertilisers were the cause of contaminated groundwater and soil since they were hardly used in Punjab and the region had elevated levels of natural uranium.
“Uranium presence in soil and groundwater cannot be assigned to use of phosphate fertilisers. The ratio of nitrogen to phosphates in popular local fertilisers is perhaps 10:1. It should be 4:1 but phosphate component is low,” said an industry official requesting anonymity.
The source of uranium in fertilisers is its presence in rock phosphate from which DAP and SSP fertilisers, among others, are produced. Activists claim that manufacturers do not undertake the “decontamination process” which separates uranium from the end-product.
“Decontamination hardly happens anywhere. In India, we were trying to remove it from phosphoric acid (an intermediate product) where it’s present minimally but it was expensive. The idea is to recover uranium, not remove it,” the official explained.No permissible limit
Asked if there was a permissible limit for uranium content in phosphate fertilisers, the official said it was not specified. The Central Pollution Control Board had introduced guidelines for the management of phosphogypsum, a manufacturing byproduct used in soil amendment, and in cement, earlier this year.
“We have not received complaints about uranium in phosphates but, if required, it can be taken up and guidelines can be put in place, as in the case of phosphogypsum,” he said.
Harmeet Singh Thind, who heads SSD, said elevated uranium levels in the Malwa region were not linked to human activity. “The perception that fertilisers and agro-chemicals have resulted in uranium in the soil is wrong. The Malwa region has high natural uranium presence to begin with, while that contained in fertilisers is accepted by the soil and is not particularly high,” he said.Significance
Uranium in Malwa’s soil has been attributed to ash from coal-run thermal power plants besides phosphate fertilisers and pesticides. It has also been noted in conjunction with high cancer rates in the State, with a Health Department report recording almost 35,000 cancer deaths over the last five years, around 19 per day. “Cancer is a multi-factorial issue but uranium and other heavy metal presence in the area is certainly a cause. Such contents have been adding up with heavy phosphate fertilisers’ application over the last 30-40 years and it enters the food chain,” said Amar Singh Azad, a Patiala-based epidemiologist, who is also a Director at the Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), an NGO that promotes sustainable agricultural practices.
Azad disputed the charge that DAP and SSP usage in Punjab was low, saying that research conducted by KVM alongside farmers in the Malwa region showed phosphate fertiliser use in Punjab to be 10 times the national average.
“For rice, it’s about 75 to 100 kg/acre yearly, the average in India is less than 10 kg/acre. Around 200 kg/acre of phosphates are used for potatoes while for a wheat or cotton cycle it’s around 50-70 kg/acre,” he explained.
Azad said reports submitted to the State Government and PAU about heavy metal contamination and such residues in food had not been acted upon.
Another local activist alleged that PAU and other agri-universities could not afford to speak out against pesticide and fertiliser corporations since their research was bankrolled by the latter with a dearth of State funding.