The Gidakom Hospital in Bjemina is meant to be a recuperation center for serious T.B and leprosy patients referred from Thimphu.
However, an investigation by this paper has found that the 26 TB patients and nine leprosy patients are being exposed to heavy air and noise pollution from nearby quarries, affecting their health. There are also higher incidences of respiratory and TB cases among the local people.
Multiple quarries to make it worse
Bjemina currently has two stone quarries and a marble quarry. The stone quarries are run by the Singye Group of Companies and Hotel Taktsang while the marble quarry is run by Bhutan Marble Mining Pvt Limited
However, the condition of the patients is expected to get much worse with four more upcoming stone quarries one of which is right above the Hospital and the other opposite to it.
A quarry in Gidaphu, facing the hospital will soon be started by the owner of Hotel River View, Kinley Wangchuk. Another quarry proposed by the Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited (NRDCL) is located above the hospital. Two more quarries were proposed at Chimithangkha which is at a distance but will use the hospital road craeting more dust.
Patients suffer in silence
“We are suffering from TB and breathing in this dust won’t help our situation,” said a 27-year-old man Namgay who got admitted more than a month ago.
“In-order to prevent bed sores and jaundice patients are advised to go out into the morning sun, which is the best, but we are not able to do so as the air is too dusty, he said.
A health official at the hospital said that the number of stone quarries coming up, especially the one proposed right above the hospital is of serious concern as the hospital would then be surrounded by quarries.
T.B and leprosy patients are not only forced to deal with the dust coming into the hospital from the quarries but also the dust kicked up by tipper trucks on the rough road just outside the hospital.
The road has been destroyed by the constant movement of heavy vehicles and trucks from the mines.
“Whenever one of these mining trucks zoom by a lot of dust is kicked up, in addition to the dust from the quarries,” said a patient.
The patients point to a thick layer of dust resting on the hospital roof as proof.
If the dust isn’t enough the patients of this hospital are subjected to a constant barrage of noise pollution which disturbs them through the day and into late evening.
“Even at 4.30 am in the morning we are woken up by the noise of tipper trucks heading for mining operations and we cannot sleep after that,” said Jaimo, a 43-year old TB patient who has been at the center for over a year.
Patients say that the noise does not allow them to get proper sleep and rest which is essential for their treatment.
“We are told to take rest but with the noise pollution, we can barely take any rest,” said Namgay.
Patients said that what was particularly traumatic for them was the sound of blasting of rocks.
The hospital’s administrative officer, Dorji Khandu, said “the TB ward is too close to the road going to the quarry and the blasting noise disturbs the patients.”
Tremors from the blasts have led to leakages at the irrigation channel above the hospital which leads to water draining into the hospital premises.
“The hospital approached the concerned people on this and had it fixed but still it keeps leaking,” said Dorji Khandu
Mewang Gewog has a population of 5,333 people. Out of this a staggering number of 484 people mainly near the quarry areas suffered from Acute Respiratory Infection in just two months between January and February 2012.
The hospital also recorded three local people diagnosed with TB in 2009; in 2010 there were three cases and there were seven TB cases in 2011. This year a baby was diagnosed with TB.
An earlier health report stated a high rate of 55 tuberculosis (TB) cases in a population of 952 residents and workers in the area from 1998 to 2008. Of these, 45 were from Bjemina, four near the sawmill and six from Gidakom.
The report said the TB cases in the area were higher than other population groups of a similar size, which could be attributed to the environment created by the presence of various factories.
Link Between dust and TB
According to a medical specialist at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), over a period of time, person exposed to silica from quarry dust would sustain damages to lungs which weaken the immunity system and make it prone to TB.
“You don’t need to have TB, if the person is exposed for a long time, he/she might suffer chronic lung diseases which is serious too,” he said.
According to international medical articles on the diseases related to mining and quarries, it is stated that dust which occurs during mining and quarrying can cause silicosis.
A few years ago, a case of silicosis was reported to the hospital. The patient was a laborer at a local quarry site. Since then no such cases were reported to the Hospital.
Another quarry laborer was diagnosed with Multi-Drug Resistance (MDR) TB which is the worst form of TB. His wife also tested positive for MDR TB and passed away at JDWNRH. Recently his daughter has also been diagnosed with the same disease.
“A lot of villagers are falling sick,” said a woman residing in Siluna
An earlier Ministry of Health report on the site states that blasting and crushing of granite dust from stone quarries emit silica dust, which can cause tuberculosis, chronic lung diseases and lung cancer.
The report also says that Marble dust releases calcium dust particles, which can cause respiratory diseases, eye and skin irritation
Medical staff says NEC taken for a ride by quarries
A NEC official said that while the Environment Assessment Act does not necessarily detail out on the agency’s involvement, they make people propose the measures to suppress dusting since social issue forms a part of the environment.
“Dusting cannot be done away with completely but there are means to suppress it through water sprinkling systems,” he said.
However, health officials working at Gidakom allege that just before NEC inspectors come to site, the factories sprinkle water and show everything is up-to-date. “People at the site are aware of the site inspection even before the environmental people step out of their office in Thimphu,” said a health official.
Health Ministry’s plans
The Dzongkhag administration had earlier proposed to shift the hospital to upper Khasadrapchu but there was no budget that was proposed.
The health minister, Lyonpo Zangley Drukpa said, “There will be a Dzongkhag hospital and Gidakom hospital is currently serving as one. The Dzongkhag Administration and the Ministry of Health have a memorandum of understanding to find a site for the Dzongkhag hospital and until that time, Gidakom hospital will continue to offer what they are offering now.”
The minister said that in the future there are plans to convert the hospital into a rehabilitative center for the disabled and also make it into a center for medical resources where artificial limbs will be made.
A senior health ministry official on the condition of anonymity said, “Two years ago, the government sent a team to Bjemina to study the effects of mining but no action could be taken as later, the public clearance was given.”