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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 14:58 GMT
Toxic warning to quake children
By Zulfikar Ali
BBC News, Muzaffarabad

Children in quake zone
Children have been living amidst rubble for six months
Children in earthquake affected areas in Pakistan and Kashmir may be at serious risk from high levels of toxins in the rubble, environmentalists warn.

Local health officials say the rubble of collapsed buildings contains heavy metals such as iron, zinc and lead, the last being the most toxic.

Large parts of the quake affected areas have still not been cleared of debris.

The 8 October quake killed over 73,000 people, destroying thousands of homes and buildings in Pakistan and Kashmir.

"The situation is disastrous," says Babar Hussain Minhas, an environmental officer with the government of Pakistan administered Kashmir.

Lead-based paints

Mr Minhas said no tests had been carried out on the rubble because he did not have the machinery of the skilled people needed.

Child sits atop a pile of rubble
This is a typical scene in most of the quake affected urban areas
"But we know that homes in this part of the world are painted with lead-based paints," he told the BBC.

There is an estimated 65 million cubic feet of rubble scattered all over Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir.

"Only about five million cubic feet of rubble have been removed so far," said municipal officer Zahid Amin Kashif.

Mr Kashif has been entrusted with the task of assisting people to remove rubble from private residential areas.

"Safe removal of rubble is a huge task and we cannot do it by ourselves," he says.

"We need assistance from the Pakistani authorities."

Soil exposed

Environmentalists have meanwhile warned that the rubble was also contaminating the rivers Jhelum and Neelum.

The two rivers join at Muzaffarabad and are used to meet most of the city's water needs.

Since the quake, most of those clearing the rubble have simply thrown the rubble into these rivers.

Many others living up the hills have disposed of the debris in gorges which serve as flood water drains and eventually end up in one of the two rivers.

Water from the two rivers is used for drinking and irrigation purposes - exposing soil, crops and humans to the risk of lead contamination.

Environmental officials fear that the large amounts of toxic lead-based substances being dumped into the river may also a threat to the fish and other aquatic life.

Wetlands spawned by the two rivers serve as temporary resting places for migratory birds from Siberia who may also be at risk.

Unaware

"There seems to be very little awareness among the people about the dangers of lead poisoning," says Mr Minhas.

A boy lifting the rubble
Many young boys are employed as labourers by construction contractors

Lead is a neuro-toxin and is particularly dangerous to children as their growing bodies absorb more than those of adults.

If breathed in, leaded molecules attack the central nervous system leading to hyperactivity, anaemia, vomiting and possible kidney damage.

In children, it can also slow down the development of the brain and cause hearing impairment.

In severe cases, there may even be brain damage leading to paralysis or death.

Acceptable lead levels are capped at 2.5 milligrams per kilogram according to the national safety regulations.

Environmentalists say that until such times as the debris is disposed off properly, the government should run a massive awareness campaign warning of the hazards.

At present there is no such campaign.





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