There has been a surge in skin rashes and gastroenteritis patients at the city’s hospitals in recent weeks because of people swimming in the sewage-contaminated Canal, The Express Tribune has learnt.
Dr Javed Akram, the dean and chief executive officer of Jinnah Hospital, estimates that there has been a 60 per cent rise in the number of people approaching the outpatient department at the hospital with complaints of skin infection, diarrhoea or hepatitis in the summer.
Skin specialist Dr Atif Kazmi, who has served at Mayo Hospital for 32 years, says there has been a 50 per cent rise in outdoor patient numbers. He said about one in five people at the OPD were there because of swimming in the Canal. “It is the poorest of the poor seeking treatment for infections in eyes, skin or nose who come here,” he said.
Tariq Zaman, the former district officer (environment), said that 11 housing societies and three water parks in Wagha and Aziz Bhatti Towns dispose of their sewage into the Canal. He said that 18 months ago, 44 units dumped their sewage in the Canal, but the number of inlets had been reduced after the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) had built a sewage pipeline. But a sewer trunk line along the Canal is still needed beyond Harbanspura, he said.
An expert said that the waste dumped in the Canal contains not just organic matter, but may also contain heavy metals. “Lead is still used in paints and it washes off with rainwater into the sewage and then into the Canal,” said Tauqeer Qureshi, former lab director at the Environmental Protection Department.
EPD officials said that some of the housing schemes included cottage dyeing industries. “Inorganic dyes contain carcinogens known to cause cancer of several types. They are extremely dangerous if ingested or used for irrigation,” Qureshi said. The organic waste material – human and animal faeces – contains bacteria that can cause skin allergies, infections and diseases. Qureshi said the pathogen that causes hepatitis thrives in warm water, and the water in the Canal can reach temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius in the summer. He added that carcinogens like chemicals and heavy metals also degrade very slowly, unlike organic matter, and so were a threat to human health for a long time.
According to a 2011 report of Pakistan Council of Science and Industrial Research (PCSIR), the bio-chemical oxygen demand (BOD) in effluent released by 12 housing societies into the Canal is 400 parts per million (ppm), 40 times greater than the limit of 10ppm set by law.
An EPD analysis report of April 2012 measured levels of chlorides, sulphates, sulfides, sodium, calcium and potassium in the Canal water. EPD officials said that the department did not have the equipment to detect heavy metals in water bodies.
Dr Kazmi, the Mayo Hospital dermatologist, said that eczema, insect bites and sunburn were other frequent problems for Canal swimmers. “The water is involuntarily consumed sometimes and hence there are more patients of severe gastroenteritis and diarrhoea between April and October,” he said.
Skin irritations, caused by exposure to water containing faeces, can lead to rashes and then blisters if not treated properly, he said.
EPA officials said that they had issued several notices to the housing societies dumping sewage in the Canal to find an alternative means of waste disposal.
EPD Secretary Saeed Iqbal Wahla said that the TMA concerned should not have permitted those housing societies to be established as they had not sought no objection certificates from the EPD.
The Wagha Town and Aziz Bhatti Town municipal officers could not be reached for comment.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2012.
Correction: In an earlier version of the article, Tariq Zaman was mentioned as the current district officer (environment). The error has been rectified.