Fuel stations are a deadly environmental threat that Indian cities are ignoring, and our neighbours

One source for air pollution alarmingly deadlier than vehicles or industries petrol pumpsA fuel station in Bengaluru. Image: Pp391 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
news Environment Monday, November 23, 2015 - 14:21

By Shibaji Roychoudhury

Whenever a conversation breaks out about rise in pollution, global warming or holes in the ozone layer, what is the first image that pops up in your head? Is it vehicular pollution? Or is it industrial pollution? When it comes to air pollution, most believe that it the increasing numbers of vehicles in the country and the exponential growth of industries and factories that are responsible for it.

While, that may be true in case of rural areas, but when it comes to metropolitan cities, there is a source for air pollution that is alarmingly deadlier than vehicles and factories – and they are petrol pumps.

The Deadly Petrol Pumps

A study by Centre of Science and Environment has revealed that petrol pumps in metropolitan cities are a source of toxic benzene emissions and is the most lethal contributor to air pollution in these regions. In fact, the study released by the Executive Director Anumita Roychowdhury claims that people living near petrol pumps are most vulnerable to health hazards, especially respiratory disorders.

“Our petrol pumps have no vapour recovery system (VRS). The western countries, south-east Asian countries, even China follows a strict policy of making it mandatory of all fuel stations to install VRS in their pumps,” Roychowdhury said.

What is the Vapour Recovery System?

The machines used to fill fuel in your vehicles consist of volatile organic compounds. While filling in the fuel tank in your automobile, these compounds, unless controlled are released into the atmosphere through the filler neck. VPR is a filtering process that blocks these emissions from evaporating into the air.

According to Roychowdhury, benzene, an integral component of petrol is damaging to human health even at levels permitted. For instance, in Delhi, the permitted level is 5 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre), however, the study suggests that the benzene level is 10 times higher and is currently exceeded 50 μg/m3 in certain locations in the Capital.

“The West, especially Europe and the US have graduated to stage-II VRS from stage I, while South-east Asian countries too are in the process of upgrading their VRS to stage-II. But, here in India, we are yet to recognise that fuel emissions are a threat to our health,” Roychowdhury added.

Is Early Morning Jog Really Healthy?

Also, don’t think that the government’s pollution regulatory departments are unaware of the serious threat that high levels of benzene pose. According to director-projects, TK Joshi of the Delhi government’s Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health revealed benzene levels peak when the temperature is minimum.

Hence, if you believed that going for a run early in the morning is a healthy exercise and you will take in some fresh air, think again, because according to Joshi, the air between 4am and 6am consists of high level of benzene.

“The harm caused by inhaling benzene polluted air is worse than the regular pollutants, since it mixes with your blood a lot easier once you inhale,” Joshi said.

Service Stations Dumping of Toxic Waste into Drains

If polluting the air was not enough, metro cities are also ensuring that rivers aren’t spared either. Most automobile service stations in India are operating without either environmental clearances or better yet, no license at all. Furthermore, these service stations dumps leftover toxic wastes, like engine oil, coolants, brake oil, car paint, etc into the nearby drain, which in turn leads to the river and pollutes it.

“There is an immediate need for the government to make it mandatory for services stations to install wastewater plants which are used to treat non-biodegradable waste. Once treated, the liquid remains can be released in the drains while the solid remains can be dumped in the landfills,” Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, said.

Increasing vehicles and mushrooming service stations

Meanwhile, vehicles are rapidly in metros. According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2013-2014, the Capital has more than 75 lakh registered vehicles, more than the combined total in Kolkata (22 lakh), Mumbai (22.3 lakh) and Hyderabad (26 lakh). Even Chennai has a little of 39 lakh registered vehicles.

According to a report in the Indian Express, Delhi adds an average 1,000 cars every day. Other than contributing heavily towards ait pollution, this is also resulting in mushrooming of service stations. Currently, there are 14,000 service stations in the Capital alone. And not a single one of them have the necessary environmental clearance.

Other than releasing toxic waste into drains, these stations are also polluting the environment by dumping non-bio degradable waste materials like filters, electronic discards, pouches, cotton, foam, old tyres, rubber, plastic, sludge and seat covers.

An official at the Central Pollution Control Board revealed that Delhi alone generates approximately 6,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste everyday and in that, between 20% and 30% is toxic and chemical waste generated from service stations.

What India Can Learn From Bhutan and Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, lesser developed countries like Bhutan and Sri Lanka have their ducks in a row when it comes to protecting their environment.

In Sri Lanka, the government has made it mandatory for service stations to install wastewater treatment plants, while all automobile service centres in Bhutan have effluent treatment plants used for recycling both solid and liquid toxic wastes generated at these sites.

The wastewater treatment system has grease interceptors, which retains the grease in the toxic liquids. Once the grease is extracted, the liquid waste then undergoes another filtration process called chemical flocculation and sedimentation and only then is it discharged into the drains.

“A lot of the liquid and solid waste generated at these service stations can be recycled and re-used. This in turn not only saves the rivers and environment from getting polluted but also gives us recycled material that can be useful. This is the way and ahead and it is high time that the government should prioritise it,” Agarwal added. 

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