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Issue 35
April , 2012
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Taking on the Toxins

Source: Informed Giving, Date: April , 2012

Awareness about the environment has been growing in recent years. However, many products that is sold today contain toxins, and not much attention is paid to their safe disposal in India. The result is that extremely harmful metals and chemicals find their way into the air and water, posing huge health risks. It is this cavalier attitude to harmful waste that Ravi Agarwal and his NGO Toxics Link seeks to transform, and make the world a healthier place.

Ravi Agarwal is the founder-director of Toxics Link, an environmental NGO whose mission is to bring into the public domain toxics-related information about the struggles and problems at the grassroots level and global information to the local levels. The NGO also does on-the-ground work, especially in the areas of municipal, hazardous and medical waste management and food safety.

A communications engineer and MBA by training, Ravi Agarwal began his career in the corporate world. But he soon realised that his interests lay in protecting the environment. In 1995, when plague hit the city of Surat, he was involved in highlighting the poor disposal of medical waste in the country. This led to a law to ensure the proper disposal of medical waste.

The campaign made Agarwal realize how little information there was on toxic material and their disposal. The result was the founding of Toxics Link in 1996. The NGO is based in Delhi with a nodal office in Chennai from where it coordinates its activities in South India. It has a nationwide network of more than 3,000 members.

Toxics Link has expertise in hazardous, medical and municipal wastes, as well as in specific issues such as the international waste trade, and the emerging issues of pesticides and POPs (persistent organic pollutants). The NGO is now focusing on e-waste and has already done assessment studies of e-waste scenarios in major metros in India.

Certainly, Agarwal has his work cut out for him. Every day, huge amounts of harmful metals and chemicals – mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxins -- are just dumped into the environment. This is a catastrophe in the making -- just 1 gm of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake! And there’s mercury in so many everyday products – fluorescent lamps, batteries, electronic products, thermometers.

Agarwal wrote in a magazine article a couple of years ago: “Delhi generates over 12,000 tonnes of e-waste annually while Mumbai produces around 19,000 tonnes. Kolkata and Chennai are catching up with about 9,000 and 10,000 tonnes. Waste from other cities often lands up in Delhi, the traditional hub of recycling with connections to towns nearby.

“This e-waste is one of the most hazardous waste streams worldwide. Electronics contain over 50 hazardous chemicals or heavy metals. A cathode ray tube (screen) could have over 1.5 kilos of lead. Inside the box, there can be mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, while the plastic casing can contain brominated flame retardants (BFR).”

Agarwal was awarded the IFCS WHO Special Recognition Award for Chemical Safety in 2008 and the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998. He is a keen birdwatcher and also a well known artist, photographer and curator, having participated in several important shows nationally and internationally.

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