Saturday, 8 August, 2020

Chemical Safety And Challenges In Nepal

Dr. Niranjan Parajuli


It has been quite over a century that the educational institutions in Nepal started up their own laboratories but they are far away from modernisation. Nepali laboratories, as a matter of fact, consume billions of imported chemicals each year. Similarly, for the past two decades, the use of various magnetic and radiation-producing devices and microorganisms has been increasing in the higher education, industry and health sectors. According to various international documents rectified by Nepal, the country has not yet formulated the necessary laws/rules and procedures for the safety of the laboratory and chemical risk reduction. Nepal does not list or record any chemicals other than pesticides and drugs. Thus, the risk of chemicals in society is increasing day by day. Frequent incidents of acid attack hit the newspaper because of the fact that concentrated acids are easily available in the market.
Due to the extreme economic constraints, the chemistry laboratories do not appear to have the usual protective arrangements. Even at the nation’s oldest university-- Tribhuvan University, some of the experimental work required for safety hoods is done in open space. The situation has not changed even in six decades. Some donors such as the World Bank have launched the higher education reform project in Nepal but they never realised the urgent need for laboratory equipment and safety measures to be implemented in developing countries like Nepal.
Despite much talk and condemnation, the government has not initiated meaningful initiatives to provide relief to the citizens from the dusty roads full of micro-particles. The state still does not have data about how many citizens are suffering from deadly chemical pollution. According to the WHO, in 2012 an estimated 193,460 people died worldwide from unintentional poisoning. Of these deaths, 84 per cent occurred in low and middle income countries. In Nepal, chemical laboratories are not safe to work at because there is no Standard Operation Protocol (SOP) in function. Good Laboratories Practices (GLP) are recently introduced in some pharmaceutical laboratories but there is no study whether it is implemented or not.
Harmful and deadly chemicals are traded in major cities in Nepal without any regulation. The government has not formulated any acts related to the control of toxic and harmful chemical substances. Because of the absence of enforcement units, the health of the people working in factories such as cement, paints, iron, etc seems to be in danger. In Agriculture as well, the problem is the same. Farmers use pesticides without taking any safety measures. According to a recent study, in Nepal, many farmers were exposed to pesticides and are found to be suffering from cancer because the use of pesticides is uncontrolled and disorderly. Pesticides can cause serious health problems when we ignore scientific methods for their storage and management. Similarly, various researches have confirmed that residues of heavy metals such as lead and mercury are found in the cosmetic products marketed. Such chemicals cause mental and physical problems not only to the mother but also to her child. But in Nepal, nobody has shown any interest in addressing the issue.
Everyone can easily see workers at the hardware stores mucked up with cement, carrying rusted iron bare-handedly, and carelessly using chemicals, including cancerous dyes. Fine particles of cement directly pass through their lungs, and harmful chemicals have a negative effect on the human endocrine system. Likewise, thousands of high schoolers are found to be using hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide in the salt analysis without taking any precautions in the lab. Such chemicals should be used in the chemical hood but there is no biosafety hood in most of the colleges and universities in Nepal. No one seems to be interested in the impact of these gases on human health.
One thing that should not be avoided when talking about chemical pollution is 'e-waste'- a problem created by cell phones, batteries and so on. After using these materials, the waste is dispersed into harmful metals such as lead, cadmium, and nickel, which can lead to cancer upon exposure. But the state does not find any interest in managing such 'e-waste ' in Nepal. We should focus on re-cycling 'e-waste’ giving chemical safety a high priority. The risk of radiation to human health is also not taken seriously in Nepal.
To minimise the risks in laboratory, a chemistry laboratory should have a variety of protective arrangements, including 'safety hood'. A digital thermometer can be used instead of a mercury thermometer. Similarly, a digital pressure sensor can be used instead of a mercury barometer, which could reduce the risk of mercury poisoning. There are dozens of other ways to minimise the risk in the lab, such as bromophenol blue can be used in place of methyl orange in titration experiments. Copper chromate can be used instead of lead chromate. An enzymatic cleaner can be used instead of detergent. The foremost thing is the use of instrumental techniques rather than wet-lab experiments, which would help to minimise chemical risks.
The Labour Act states that a company should provide necessary protective equipment for the safety of workers or employees exposed to chemicals, but in practice, this rule does not appear to apply in any industry in Nepal. In government lab as well, chemical safety is one of the matter of concerns. Several government employees in various laboratories suffered from cancer due to lack of safety measures.
In the end, the government should not delay emphasising the meaningful implementation of chemical safety measures. Finally, students or researchers have the right to work in a safe environment in the lab. So the state has to be sensitive in this regard. Also, the government should regulate the open market of chemicals to address the growing chemical risks.

(Parajuli is a professor at the Central Department of Chemistry, Tribhuvan University, and President of Nepal Chemical Society.) 

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