Worth a thousand words

11,000 trees planted by 11,000 people from all over the world in Finland, as part of a massive earthwork and land reclamation project by environmental artist Agnes Denes, one of the pioneers of Environmental Art. Read more about Agnes, here, best known for her Wheatfield project in Manhattan.

Landfill reclamation project, 1992

Source: Agnes Denes Studio

Will we be wearing these hazmat suits and masks in the future? Hope not.

Hazmat surfing

Source: Featureshoot.com

Indoor air quality can be and is enhanced through indoor plants. How about when you are out there? When the air pollution gets worse, will you take the plants with you?

Upfest 2015 - Urban Festival in Bristol
Street Art

Source: Dr. Love

Not so subtle project that spreads awareness on paper consumption and recycling.

PaperBridge - visualisation
Paper Bridge

Source: Steve Messam

No blind spot for this trash bag. Makes me want to sing ‘But then I just smile, I go ahead and smile…..‘ (flip-flops) flip-flops-163577_640

Seeing trash differently

Source: Trash Project

Reminiscence of our ways of material consumption. Where are our patterns of consumption taking us?

Becoming aerosolar

Source: Tomas Saraceno

Before and After. Daesung Lee has found a way to show what it will be like if we don’t act now.

Futuristic archaeology

Source: Daesung Lee

Permanently etched on my mind. I so want to see this all over.

Green roof

Source: May 19, 2014, New Yorker Magazine Cover

One of the winning entries of DEP’s Water Resources Art and Poetry program, out of 1,350 2-12 grade students from New York city. A total of 1,400 pieces of Artwork and Poetry were created by these young artists for the 29th Annual Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest.

By Adrianny Estevez
By Adrianny Estevez

Source: Department of Environmental Protection, NY

Mario Miranda’s 1987 cartoon captured the suddenness of environmental degradation and the Goan artist’s inability to process the altered landscape before him.

Source: The  Caravan


  • Goan Art taken from The Caravan, 16.07.2015

Getting the lead out

India’s favorite snack Maggi Noodles has been put under the microscope after ‘abrupt’ tests revealing excessive amounts of lead in it. Thanks to Barabanki’s food safety inspector VK Pandey. This set off a chain reaction that lead to the inspection of various other products in the market. Much to our surprise, lead was found and so was detergent. Maggi noodles and other products have been enjoying this unchecked prosperity for who knows how long.

Lead is a chemical element (goes by the symbol ‘Pb’ in the periodic table, for plumbum in Latin) that is thought to have ended the Roman Civilization. The Roman Empire’s water supply used lead pipes (without any coating to it), unlike iron and steel that are commonly used today. In addition to this, they even added lead acetate to makes their wines sweeter!

In 1922, lead in the form of tetraethlyllead as an anti-knocking agent was added to petrol to make vehicles run smoothly. Fifty years down the line i.e. around 1970, the infamous tetraethyllead was everywhere, in all the vehicles around the world. In the year 2002, 50 countries banned leaded gasoline and adopted unleaded gasoline. In 2007, 90% of the world’s countries had banned it. In 2008, 21 countries were still using it. Why did so many countries ban it? Who knew that lead could be poisonous to us humans? The Romans didn’t know. The men who used lead in petrol didn’t know, or did they?

Leaded Petrol Phase-out: Global Status April 2014
Leaded Petrol Phase-out: Global Status April 2014, Source: UNEP

One man named Clair Cameron Patterson knew. Elaborated in ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, episode ‘The Clean Room’, Patterson, a geochemist, unmasked the toxic nature of lead while looking for the true age of the Earth. His efforts to make sure that lead gets eliminated from petrol is commendable. He fought against the political tide all by himself. Why did he do that? He, of all the people, knew how dangerous lead is to people.

Lead bioaccumulates as our body doesn’t know how to deal with heavy metals like lead, mercury, chromium etc. It sits inside you, in your bones, and inhibits the body to function well, havocs it. It attacks your nervous system, your kidneys, and a lot more. In scientific terms, this makes lead a ‘Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) chemical’. As the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) puts it,

“Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause brain damage, paralysis, (lead palsy), anaemia and gastrointestinal symptoms. Longterm exposure can cause damage to the kidneys, reproductive and immune systems in addition to effects on the nervous system. The most critical effect of low-level lead exposure is on intellectual development in young children and like mercury, lead crosses the placental barrier and accumulates in the foetus. Infants and young children are more vulnerable than adults to the toxic effects of Lead, and they also absorb lead more easily. Even short-term low-level exposure of young children to lead is considered to have an effect on neurobehavioural development. Consumption of food containing lead is the major source of exposure for the general population.”

How did lead get into these noodles? It could have entered the noodles through air, water, soil, plastic packaging, ‘masala‘, noodles, or industrial effluent. Lead has been used in storage batteries, weapons, lead paint, and even to protect workers from radioactive elements. It is still one of the most commonly used non-ferrous metals in the world. Any one can become exposed to lead through inhalation or ingestion of lead particles that are generated from industrial and domestic activities. Lead still serves many purposes and used as:

  • a coloring agent in stained glasses for reducing the radiation transmission
  • in fishing sinkers and in balancing wheels of vehicles
  • in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic for coating the electrical metal wires
  • for shielding from radiation in x-ray laboratories
  • in electronics its use as soldering agent
  • as a coolant in lead-cooled fast reactors
  • for sound proofing system
  • in building constructions e.g. sheets as architectural metals in roofing, cladding, flashings, gutters and joints, etc
  • water proofing media
  • in lead-based semi-conductors such as lead telluride, lead selenide and lead antimonide are being used in photovoltaic (solar) cells and infrared detectors
  • in making sculptures
  • a additive to brass to reduce machine tool wear

According to FSSAI, the permissible limit for lead in food is 2.5 ppm, i.e. 2.5 mg of lead per kg of body weight. Some of the samples indicated levels of 17 ppm, that’s about 7 times higher. What does ‘Permissible Exposure Limit’ (PEL) mean anyway? Who decides this? Isn’t it basically a ‘legal’ limit to lead content in food? 2.5 ppm or less, lead is going to accumulate in the human body. If it accumulates in large amounts, it leads to poisoning. PEL is the so called regulatory number, against advisory/recommended values, which can only be advised and not enforced. According to the World Health Organization, there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.

Moreover, please note that ‘2.5 ppm’ mentioned above is only applicable to ‘Foods not specified’ under the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011. It is not the same, for say, baking powder. For baking powder, PEL is as high as 10 ppm. Standard procedure is followed for testing of elements in food samples and specific determination methods are followed for determining specific elements such as lead.

Lead poisoning is preventable but the damage is done in many cases and people have been exposed to lead. Some believe that they can cure it through Chelation Therapy. Viral messages suggesting chelation therapy with coriander are being passed along. Drugs called “chelators” [KEY-lay-ters] bind to the metals in the blood stream. This metal-chelator compound then gets eliminated in the urine. This therapy has its side effects but is a preferred choice for heavy metal poisoning. Chelation therapy however can only remove lead from blood, and not from your bones as it is difficult to do so. Let’s not forget what Benjamin Franklin said, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’


The worldwide problem of lead in petrol by Philip J. Landrigan

Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, UNEP

Maggi Controversy: The Unpalatable Truth About How Lead Got Into Your Noodles, Huffington Post

Order by FSSAI: M/S Nestle India Limited’s “Maggi Instant Noodles with Tastemaker” and any other food products covered under Section 22 which have not been examined for risk/safety assessment – regarding.

Lead and Lead Compounds, Ohio EPA

Manual for Analysis of Metals, FSSAI, 2012 (Draft)

Bureau of International Recycling

World Health Organization

Oral chelation therapy for patients with lead poisoning

Geological Survey of India

International Business Times

Further Reading:

Learn about Lead by US EPA

Lead Poisoning and Rome

Note 1: One can think on similar lines for MSG and Sweeteners.

Note 2: In Indian languages lead is known as ‘sisa’, ‘ranga’, ‘haridra’, ‘seemak’, ‘cheen’, ‘sindhur’ (Hindi/ Sanskrit), ‘eeyam’ (Malyalam) and ‘tipu’ (Pali).

It matters where the bhutta goes

As I stood by a bus-stop relishing a sweet and masaledar bhutta (roasted sweet (golden) corn garnished with salt, lemon and red chili powder) with my aunt on my way back home from South Mumbai, I diligently tossed the leftovers in a dust bin elevated to just about 5 ft. from ground-level, where I couldn’t see what’s inside without a peek.

A fraction of a minute later, I noticed there was a pair of dustbins side-by-side and I had tossed the corn in one of them without realizing each one accepted different kinds of waste: dry and wet. ‘Oops! I put the corn in the dry waste bin!‘, I exclaimed.

Here’s how they look:


Both the bins should have been color coded for people to identify them correctly. I’ve noticed these bins in the Dadar area too. May be they are all over Mumbai.

After the waste is collected, it is mostly landfilled – which may be the easiest option but not a sustainable one. Land is scarce, waste generation is rising and there are associate health and environmental risks to landfilling, such as pollution and spread of diseases. A fire recently broke out in one of the dumping grounds in Mumbai – the pollution caused stayed for days.

Waste management is not an easy thing to do. Every way to deal with it has its relative merits and demerits and is handled on a case-by-case basis. A city needs a different waste management strategy than a village. It does get easier with segregation at source – that is if you and I provide the waste collectors with segregated waste – waste separated into types specified by the local authority, such as the BMC in Mumbai. That said, below is the notice my society received. I am not sure how many people in my building would really understand vermi composting or even know why they need to segregate and what will happen to the segregated garbage once the BMC takes it.

I have yet not seen the change in the way the waste is collected in my building, everything still goes into one big bin. Hopefully, this will change soon and with some more motivation other than sending notices, such as dissemination of information through awareness campaigns.


In the villages of India, waste composition has been changing with economic development. In my hometown in Ratnagiri district, dry recyclables were scattered all around. Same goes with tourist destinations like Alibaug in the Raigad district, a place I often visit. The villagers are often not aware of the health and environmental consequences of littering, they simply burn everything.

There are all kinds of waste other than household garbage, but that’s a topic for another day. For more information on what is dry waste, wet waste, hazardous waste, household hazardous waste, click here.

Solid waste affects water, air and soil quality, and the way we live. We live on water, air and soil, isn’t the equation simple? We can get rid of solid waste and turn it into something useful. Plenty organizations are helping out the public to make this possible, all we got to do then is be supportive, educate yourself, and participate in the process. You can start simple, so that you don’t overwhelm yourself – don’t be a litterbug. If you don’t know what to do, ask for help, approach the authorities, or approach someone who can help you approach the authorities. Or map it using the Swachh Bharat app!

The following video shows working models of rural waste management:

| | सह-जम्́ कर्म कौंतॆय | स-दॊषम् अपि न त्यजॆत् | सर्वारंभा हि दॊषॆण | धूमॆनाग्निर् इवाव्ड़्ताः | | “No on should abandon duties because he sees defects in them. Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke” – Bhagvad Gita

Do you take climate science with a grain of salt?

If you say ‘yes’ to the title of this post, it’s a good thing. ‘Science is not something you should believe in. You should be skeptic about everything.’, an advice offered to me once. Science is based on facts – there is no question of belief in science. Science helps you find the truth. It is logic and not blind faith. It’s not about consensus either. Stuff that you don’t understand seems magical for a reason. The reason is our lack of understanding and it astounds us. Want to see some magic? See the video below.

When Copernicus said that the sun was at the center of our solar system instead of the earth, when Galileo supported him, imagine what would have happened if everyone had believed the consensus. We probably wouldn’t have advanced in astronomy as much as we do now. This fell on my ears when I listened to Real Time with Bill Maher as Bill questioned the speaker Bret Stephens (a columnist) why he won’t believe the scientists who know climate science. But as Rheinhard says, the heliocentric solar model won because it had evidence to back it up, and the same goes with climate change.

So far the evidence that I’ve seen, which is available for anyone with internet to view – the chart where the CO2 has been rising like it never has before, and that greenhouse gas effect is real, I think CO2 reduction is tough but necessary. It would be scary to think that so many scientists might have twisted scientific facts. Some say it is the solar spots and why not, sun has major influence on our climate. It doesn’t have to be just a single contributing factor. Climate science has evolved (see figure below) and is being supported by newer techniques such as NASA’s operation IceBridge. We are learning more and more about our atmosphere, land and water. The more we know, the better our climate models get. The better our climate models are, the better prepared we are with the help of the predictions that these climate models fetch.

Our oceans are carbon dioxide sinks. We do understand the chemistry that takes place in this case but we barely know the ocean in entirety. (There are waterfalls and lakes at the bottom of the sea! There’s an ocean at the core of the Earth! AAAAAAAA!) It’s only been three decades since we started studying what constitutes 70% of our Earth’s surface. May be the ocean will take care of this all, may be it won’t.

Some may argue that the money that goes into climate science may better address immediate issues of concern – like poverty and diseases. (I do not find the source of this statement at this moment.) Won’t preparedness for climate disasters help not only the rich but also the poor? Doesn’t science help alleviate poverty in the long run? Can’t we allocate enough money for both – poverty, medicinal science and all kinds of scientific studies there can be? Speaking of funding towards science, the picture isn’t too good for space science either:

“As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?’ Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar.” From Space Chronicles, p. 25.

Take climate science with a grain of salt? Do you take any other subject of science with a grain of salt? I do because that propels me into understanding it better rather than believing it on face value.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Neil deGrasse Tyson

He nailed it!

Would you drink from River Krishna?

Rivers of India map: Wikipedia

The third longest river in India, Krishna, flows through the state of Maharashtra and meets the Bay of Bengal in the end. The regions of Satara and Sangli receive its bounty. However, a news channel this morning displayed the blame game the people here play. The public blames the sugar industries and the environmental scientists blame the people. What’s the truth? One of my relatives hails from Sangli. Sangli’s co-operative sector has 10 sugar factories and the industrial sector has the other 10. A few years back he complained that his family and people around were falling sick due to water pollution caused by sugar industries in the area. Not sure where he got that information from so I called up the pollution control board. MPCB denied of any pollution caused by the sugar industry the relative mentioned.

To study and manage water, the Watershed Atlas of India provides a systematic picture of river basins in the form watershed maps. In the image below, you can see the various shapes water takes on land before it becomes a river. Rainfall from the mountain overflows down into what we call ‘catchments’. A group of these catchments form ‘sub-watersheds’. A group of sub-watersheds form a ‘watershed’ and a group of watersheds form a ‘basin’.

Watersheds: Howstuffworks.com

In Watershed Atlas of India, the entire river systems of the country have been divided into 6 Water Resources Region, which has been further divided into 35 basins and 112 catchments. These catchments have been further divided into 500 sub-catchments and 3237 watersheds. Basins, catchments and watersheds are hydrological units that provide a system boundary for analysis. Analysis like computation of water balance parameters helps in the implementation of water management schemes.

Krishna Basin Map: Govt. of India

The Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB) collaborates with State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) concerned with the river basin. In the case of Krishna river it is the pollution control boards of the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Since some of the water goes underground, known as groundwater, two kinds of monitoring are done – surface water monitoring and ground water monitoring. In the country, surface water monitoring is done on monthly or quarterly basis and on half yearly basis in case of ground water. The monitoring network in the country covers 445 Rivers, 154 Lakes, 12 Tanks, 78 Ponds, 41 Creeks/Seawater, 25 Canals, 45 Drains, 10 Water Treatment Plant (Raw Water) and 807 Wells. Among the 2500 stations, 1275 are on rivers, 190 on lakes, 45 on drains, 41 on canals, 12 on tanks, 41 on  creeks/seawater, 79 on ponds, 10 Water Treatment Plant (Raw Water) and 807 are groundwater stations.

In my notes, I’ve defined the parameters that these stations use to infer the water quality. You can find my notes here. One of them is Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD). BOD is ‘a measure of the oxygen utilized by micro-organisms during the oxidation of organic materials’. It indicates the amount of organic material present in water or the amount of ‘organic waste’ in it. Drinking water usually has a BOD of less than 1mg/l, and water is considered fairly pure with a BOD of 3mg/l. But, when the BOD value reaches 5mg/l, the water is of doubtful purity. Below is a picture of the water quality trend of BOD in River Krishna. On an average, looking at the mean values, it looks fairly pure. That doesn’t mean it has been this way the whole time. It has gone through spikes, as seen from the maximum values, which means it has been highly impure at times. Why has the water gone from pure to impure, and to the extent that it reaches values like 17 mg/l?


Water Quality Trend of BOD in River Krishna

Other than BOD, there are other important parameters such as Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Coliform levels. Following are results from the water quality monitoring stations in Maharashtra. Drinking water should have Total Coliforms (TC) to be 50 MPN/100 ml or less and DO to be 6 mg/l or more. The graphs show unevenness in this regard. The DO is hanging low from 6 mg/l and TC is seen shooting way higher than 50 MPN/100 ml.

Coliform bacteria are organisms that are present in the environment and in the feces of all warm-blooded animals and humans. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, their presence in drinking water indicates that disease-causing organisms (pathogens) could be in the water system.

screenshot-cpcb.nic.in 2015-01-10 12-34-12 screenshot-cpcb.nic.in 2015-01-10 12-34-30

Clearly the water is not of the right quality and its either the industries or the people that are contributing to it or both. Here’s a screenshot of an annual report (2004-05) that talks about steps taken to improve water quality of this River.

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screenshot-mpcb.gov.in 2015-01-10 12-53-58