A recent study in Ennore in Chennai has found that 63% of the 207 children surveyed under the age of five exhibited one or more symptoms of respiratory infection.

Sathya in a pink nightie wearing a brown shawl across her is sitting on a bed with her two children Sadhana and Eshanth. Eshanth is not wearing a shirt, Sadhana is in a pink dressSathya tries to make her son Eshanth sit upright with the help of her daughter Sadhana.
news Health Monday, April 18, 2022 - 17:52

Sathya wipes away a stray tear from her son Eshanth's eye as he suffers from his third coughing fit in just 20 minutes since we sat down. She runs a soothing hand across his back but the 18-month-old child, made to sit upright on his mother's lap, begins to wail as both his discomfort and body temperature continue to rise. As this 25-year-old young mother tends to her infant on a hot Wednesday afternoon in Ennore's Kattukuppam village, she can barely hold back her tears.

"I rushed him to the hospital twice just yesterday. He was struggling to even breathe. His small chest was rising and falling with so much effort," she explains, while rubbing the child's back to help him control his cough. “We first went to a government hospital in the morning but despite giving the medicines they prescribed, nothing happened. When his wheezing got worse I took him to a private clinic but they said I have to admit him. We couldn't afford to. So we brought him back," she adds, her voice cracking from the weight of this admission.

For Sathya, a mother of two who has lived in Kattukuppam since she got married five years ago, consulting doctors for her children's health issues has become a weekly affair over the last four years. Sadhana, her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter recovered from a severe cold and cough just a week ago, but by then her son had already developed symptoms of a severe respiratory infection. Eshanth, whose condition, she says is recurrent and more serious, first developed breathing issues when he was just six months old.

"I don't have the emotional and financial strength to constantly handle this. In a month, we spend at least Rs 4,000 on their health when our monthly income is just Rs 10,000," she laments. Her husband, a fisherman, is the family's only earning member. "I walk carrying them for 45 minutes to the nearest hospital. Doctors are telling me to leave Ennore if I want my child to become better. But this is our home, our land. Where do we go if they tell us to leave?" she asks desperately.

Sathya is not alone. Her lament echoes across Kattukuppam, with several parents facing the prospect of the health of their children deteriorating allegedly due to increasing air pollution in a heavily industrialised zone.

The medicines Sathya bought for her children in a week.

Children struggling to breathe

A recent study conducted in Ennore by the Healthy Energy initiative along with postgraduate students from SRM Institute of Science and Technology's School of Public Health, stated that more than 63% of the 207 children surveyed under the age of five were found to have one or more symptoms of respiratory infection. This is an alarming statistic when compared to the one percent recorded in Chennai and 3.9% recorded in Thiruvallur by the National Family Health Survey data for 2019 to 2021.

In Kattukuppam, where this reporter spoke to over 10 families who confirmed these symptoms, the study recorded that 92% (32 children out of 37 surveyed) of the children had been sick with one or more symptoms of respiratory infection in the month preceding the study. In Arunodaya Nagar, all 13 children who were surveyed reported some form of respiratory infection.The survey also recorded a high prevalence of respiratory distress — 61% and 49% respectively in Sivanpadaiveethi Kuppam and AIR Nagar. Running nose was the most common symptom with 48% of the children reporting it. While 40% of them reported having suffered nasal congestion, 35% experienced dry cough and 5% had wheezing.

This study comes under the spotlight at a time when the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) is planning to hold a public hearing for the expansion of the Ennore Thermal power station despite public opposition to the proposal on ground.  The existing 450 MW Ennore Thermal Power Station (ETPS) was decommissioned in 2017. A 660 MW plant was proposed as a replacement after the decommissioning. There was also a proposal for capacity expansion in 2008 to generate 660 MW.

For residents here, this is an alarming prospect. Ennore and Manali are already home to over 34 red category industries (enterprises not permitted in ecologically fragile or sensitive areas). Past studies of the air pollution in North Chennai have reportedly shown that industries in the area have violated emission norms on more than 50% of the days between the years 2019 and 2020.  A public hearing that was to be held on April 12 regarding the expansion, was cancelled, fearing law and order issues due to the opposition to the proposal, according to reports. 

"The air and water here has been ruined. And if that was not enough, they are making our children fall sick as well," says 25-year-old Preetha, who has two sons under the age of five. However both children, four-year-old Sanjay and two-year-old Sabareesh no longer live with her.

Mother with child

Preetha, a redident of Ennore, with her son who has come for a brief visit.

"When my older son was just one-and-a-half-years-old, we had to rush him to Kumaran Hospital in Tiruvottiyur because he developed severe breathing difficulties. He was admitted for five days and we spent over Rs 10,000 for the treatment," she says angrily. "In the years that followed, we were spending at least Rs 5,000 a month for their medical treatment. The doctor said I should leave Ennore for the sake of my children. But my husband's livelihood is linked to the place. So I sent my children to live with my mother in a different area," she adds.

The children visit their parents on weekends and holidays but mostly they stay away from Kattukuppam.

For 43-year-old Saraswathi, a sweet-seller from the area, the pollution has robbed her of the chance to spend time with her newborn grandson and daughter.

"Whenever my daughter, who resides in a nearby village after marriage, visits us with her son, the child falls ill," she says, rolling a ball of jaggery. "The last time they were here, the child had to be rushed to the hospital due to breathing issues and we had to spend Rs 6,000. Now, my son-in-law refuses to send them over. I try to go often but I also need to earn my daily wages," she adds.

Women selling sweets on roadside

Saraswathi, 43, readying to sell the sweets she made.

Preetha meanwhile believes her decision to keep her children in her parents' home in Adambakkam, while difficult, was best for their future.

"If they become weak now, how will they be able to have strength for what life holds for them later?" she asks. "So we followed the doctor’s advice," she adds.

'At least 5 children seek treatment everyday'

Dr Vivek Anandraj, a 44-year-old general practitioner who runs a clinic in Ennore is among the doctors in the area who had been asking patients to move out.

"I get at least 15-20 patients a day with symptoms such as sneezing, recurrent cough, wheezing and breathing difficulties. Out of them at least five are children up to the age of five. It starts off as allergic rhinitis but given the severity of air pollution it sometimes progresses to asthma. So, when a child of that age comes to the clinic over four times a month, I suggest that the parents leave the area for the sake of the child's health," he adds.

Doctor in his clinic

Dr. Vivek Anandraj at his clinic in Ennore.

Dr Anandraj who has another clinic in Tiruvottiyur says that the number of patients he gets in the Ennore clinic is at least 20% higher. The number of patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is also higher in Ennore.

"When they cannot prevent the adverse health impacts from the existing power plant how can they even plan to bring another one?” asks Vishvaja Sambath, Programme Coordinator of Healthy Energy Initiative - India. "These health problems are because of uncontrolled emissions and unless they bring an effective monitoring system in place, residents of Ennore will not be open to the expansion of the plant. We understand that power needs have to be met in the state. But this cannot come at the cost of people's health," she adds. 

TNM contacted the Department of Public Health regarding the study conducted by the Healthy Energy Initiative and our own findings on ground seeking a response. Senior officials of the department said that the government will have to do its own investigations before attributing any health impact to air pollution in the area. 

"We need to take the air quality parameters in Ennore and then do a study in a controlled environment. We have to take those measurements to see whether we can attribute this alleged impact to air pollution," says a senior official. "We will take a look at this report but we have to do our own independent study before we arrive at any conclusion," he adds.

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