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Cancer sludge deepens in Kerala

Thiruvananthapuram, Aug. 6: Bad news upon bad news came bubbling out of Coca-Cola’s bottle of trouble with the state pollution control board in Kerala dropping a bigger bombshell today than what the BBC had done about a fortnight ago.

It said the waste discharge from Coke’s bottling plant at Plaachimada in the northern district of Palakkad contained the carcinogenic cadmium metal in quantities that are almost double the level mentioned in a BBC Radio 4 report.

The board’s samples contained 201.8 mg of cadmium per kg of the dry waste, as against the permissible level of 50 mg/kg. The BBC samples showed a concentration of 100 mg/kg of the sludge.

Cadmium is a carcinogen that can cause kidney failure. Sludge from the plant was being given to local farmers as soil conditioner, according to the company, but the BBC report said it was being used as fertiliser.

After the BBC revelation about a fortnight ago, officials of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd produced an all-clear certificate from two laboratories in Kochi, questioning the authenticity of the BBC findings.

Pollution board chairman Paul Thachil said a detailed study was going on to analyse the samples of water and solid waste at the bottling plant, which had so far conformed to the strict parameters for air and water use. The board will initiate a similar sample analysis at the Pepsi plant in the same district.

Thachil said although this was a “very serious matter, denoting a deviation from the undertaking given by the Coke management at the time of setting up the unit”, the board would not straightaway recommend closure.

It has told the company not to distribute the sludge to farmers, securing it instead in leak-proof containers until further orders. In any case, the board is not empowered to recommend closure in this instance.

The samples were analysed at a highly sophisticated board lab at Kochi set up under an Indo-Dutch project.

But the board is clueless about the origin of the heavy metal contamination in a soft drinks plant. Whether this is a result of flawed treatment or stemmed from the groundwater has yet to be determined.

The presence of lead in the samples was 319 mg per kg, which was well below the safe permissible level of 500 mg in the solid waste. The concentration of cadmium and lead in the effluent water (as opposed to the solid waste) was within limits.

In January, when it analysed the samples for heavy metals, the board had drawn a blank. Therefore, it was surprising to detect a dramatic difference in the waste content in only six months.

The board will immediately ask for an explanation from the management. The results of a fresh study by board member-secretary K.V. Indulal, on the orders of the health minister, will be available by the month end.

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