Studies have pegged consumption of phosphatic fertilizers in Punjab at ten times higher than the national average. Thence media has consistently reported on cancer deaths in the Malwa region of Punjab.

What are phosphatic fertilizers?

  • Phosphatic fertilizers are chemical substances that contain the nutrient phosphorus in an absorbable form (Phosphate anions) or that yield after conversion in the soil.
  • Phosphates help plants store energy, root well, flower and produce fruit.
  • The DAP or Diammonium Phosphate is the widely used phosphatic fertilizer in our country.
  • The total fertilizer consumption in India is 27 million tones, out of which about 20-25 per cent of phosphorous and nitrogen-based nutrients are dependent on imports from the United States, Jordan, Iran, Oman, China, Russia, Morocco, Israel, Lithuania and Egypt.

Hazards of phosphatic fertilizers

  • Pursuant to the disquieting reports from the area, BARC in 2013 analysed fertilizer and soil samples from the Malwa region and discovered heavy concentration of Uranium.
  • According to the report, Uranium concentration in DAP was around 91.77 parts per million (ppm), which was way beyond the permissible limit.
  • It is also a fact that the fertiliser industry in India does not follow all procedures and protocols essential for decontamination of imported phosphatic rock associated with traces of Uranium.
  • There is yet another theory which does not support the fertiliser route for Uranium ingestion through food chain, but emphasises on the geogenic factors for the possible presence of Uranium in the groundwater samples.
  • Higher concentrations of Uranium are present in certain types of soils and rocks, especially granite.
  • All the three isotopes of Uranium (U-234, U-235, U-238) have a half-life period ranging from 0.25 million years to 4.47 billion years, indicating their relative stability.

Increasing Uranium contamination

  • Presence of Uranium is widespread, and according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, its normal concentration in soil is between 300 microgram per kg (ug/kg) and 11.7 milligram per kg (mg/kg).
  • In the Indian context, contamination of Uranium in Punjab’s groundwater has been a problem since the early 2000s.
  • High levels of uranium found in the fertile Malwa region along with industrial effluents leads to a bigger problem as it contaminates the groundwater.
  • The presence of bicarbonates, nitrate, chloride anions and soil is calcareous since the carbonic acid created in the process enhances leaching efficiency of uranium from soils and sediments.

Matter of urgent importance

  • With no guidelines or acceptable standards by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) regarding the amount of uranium in fertilizers produced in India, we are on a dead track.
  • Authorities’ concerned need to take cognizance and invest in less expensive R&D of the decontamination process.
  • At the same time, it is also necessary to specify the acceptable limit of Uranium in groundwater.

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