Dr Aruna Dewan, a toxicology expert who headed the National Institute of Occupational Health’s Poison Information Centre, said the disease came to light after she examined the condition of a 27-year-old, Naina Gajjar from Mehsana district who was being treated at the Jivraj Mehta hospital in Ahmedabad. Dr Dewan and others, along with victims, recounted the symptoms and medical details at a press conference held in Ahmedabad on Thursday.
The woman, Naina Gajjar, was suffering from “severe fibrosis along with pneumo-thorax”. Fibrosis is the development of scars in a tissue, while pneumo thorax refers to the accumulation of air in the spaces around the lungs, blocking the lung’s ability to expand and making it difficult to breathe.
After checking up what the factory — Corel Pharma Chem’s factory at Kadi, Mehsana — produced, Dr Dewan got in touch with the Vadodara-based People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC), an NGO working in the area of occupational health.
PTRC’s head Jagdish Patel said they visited Gajjar’s home on June 3, 2011 and found her “bed-ridden, frail” and had difficulty speaking because she was breathless.
Gajjar said she worked as a daily wage labourer and handled the factory’s grinder machine, where she was charged with filling and stacking a bag of powder she could not identify. She and her colleagues would be exposed to this powder for 10 to 12 hours daily, according to PTRC, although they were provided masks.
Gajjar’s husband Bhavesh also gave them a handful
of the powder, which they said was used to make gel used in beauty and grooming products. Dr Dewan said she has not identified the components of the powder as yet, but she did mix the powder with water in a petridish to see what happened. The next morning, the solution had turned into a gel, she said.
PTRC began looking for others who had worked in the factory, and found three more — Vishnuji Thakor (21), Chandrika Thakor (27) and Vipul Darji (20) . They also located the mother of another woman called Alka Thakor, who reportedly died of lung disease a day before Independence Day last year. All the workers said they were not provided identity cards by the company nor were they provided salary slips.
Darji’s work was different from the others and so no permanent illness was recorded, PTRC said. But medical records of both Chandrika and Vishnu showed they suffered from different respiratory diseases. The doctor who diagnosed Chandrika mentioned in the medical records she was suffering from an “occupational lung disease”, a remark he marked as “important”.
Vishnu was also present along with Alka Thakor’s mother, Madhuben, at the press conference.
Neither the health experts nor the NGO and workers have filed written complaints to the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health, although a top official confirmed a verbal communication had been given to an official.
The company concerned did not respond to the e-mail queries.
‘Faster than silicosis’
Dr Jagdish Parikh, former deputy director of the NIOH, said it was a “very fast disease” that begins within 10 to 12 months of the victim’s exposure to whatever is causing it. “It’s much faster than silicosis,” he said.
He said the powder seemed to be at the nano-level. “It is a terminal disease. All the treatment is now symptomatic,” Dr Parikh said.