Authorities flout rules yet again, those cleaning Chennai oil spill exposed to toxic chemicals

International labour standards mandate that those working in hazardous environments be informed in advance of the health risks
Authorities flout rules yet again, those cleaning Chennai oil spill exposed to toxic chemicals
Authorities flout rules yet again, those cleaning Chennai oil spill exposed to toxic chemicals

With orange safety gloves pulled up to his wrists and only black boots to wade through the murky water, Ennore Cooperative Society President Venkatesh has been helping Kamarajar port authorities remove the sheets of oil that have collected near the shore. For the last four days, Venkatesh along with several fishermen who depend on the sea for a living, have been aiding the clean-up following the oil spill near the Chennai coast. They use buckets to scoop up the oil as they stand waist deep in the black sludge. Their efforts aimed at getting back their livelihood, however, might just prove to be fatal to their lives.

From day one, environmentalists have been constantly stressing on the toxicity of the crude oil that has spilled into the sea. Despite this, port authorities have reportedly not issued a formal advisory to those living near the coastline. In addition to this, inadequate protective gear has been handed out to fishermen, NGO volunteers, port authorities and even coast guard officials who are aiding the clean-up. According to the local fishermen, close to 60 tonnes of the oil have been removed so far.

Several fishermen and workers aiding the clean-up are already witnessing the effects of the exposure to the chemicals. "The smell from the oil is irritating my eyes constantly," says Venkatesh."I have developed boils all over my hands as well," he adds. Did the coast guard or port authorities not warn him? "No, we received no warning. In fact, the port Chairman came today and encouraged us to help the authorities clean the water," he explains. 

According to standards set by the International Labour Organisation, workers who are in environments which consists of toxic substances, must be informed in advance of the hazards. Further, they must be provided respiratory protection, gloves, aprons and goggles for their protection.

"It is well known that refinery materials are a toxic cocktail. The biggest source of toxins is through inhalation and crude oil has benzene, which is a carcinogen." says Swetha Narayan, an environmentalist. "Yes, it is important to control environmental damage but not at the cost of the workers' occupational health."

In addition to cancer, long-term exposure to refinery materials can cause skin allergies, irritation of eyes and even respiratory diseases. Repeated attempts by TNM to contact port authorities, regarding the violation of international rules, went unanswered. 

For several fishermen who have gathered to help authorities, this is reportedly a way to make ends meet, given that they cannot go out fishing. "We have to remove the oil so that we can get on with our lives," says SA Vignesh, Meenavar Makkal Munani Katchi chief. "People are scared to buy fish from us. Let these people at least earn some money this way. Since the oil is in salt water, nothing will happen to us," he adds.
According to the Meenavar Makkal Munani Katchi, men from 12 fishing villages have come to help with the clean-up. With officials failing to inform them of the hazards of the task they have taken up, several of the volunteers have now unwittingly exposed themselves to highly harmful chemicals. 

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