Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

87. Environmental and Human Imperatives of Pollution Recognition and Remedies

R.N. Sharma
National Chemical Laboratory, Pune 411008


Pollution has become the bane of modern industrial civilizations. Pace of life and work in latter often even leads to inability of timely recognition of deterioration in environmental quality due to pollution. this can in turn give rise to disease epidemics as well as other community mishaps endangering health and life of large populations. In more populous, and often still developing countries, sophisticated protocols of pollution detection devised for technologically advanced nations, are not suitable. Simpler techniques of pollution detection and monitoring, as by easily observable biological responses of selected/specially developed bioindicator organisms, are the need of the hour. recognition and identification of pollution, its etiology, source, nature and consequences must be followed by remedial measures, preferable of simple, sustainable and ecofriendly nature. This may be easier said than done, but there can be no denying of such needs becoming imperatives of planetary existence and survival.


Pollution has become a universal phenomenon, aggravating with time, despite sustained efforts at containment. Reduction of planetary parameters to contracted dimensions of the global village has occurred in spheres other than information, leading to further ubiquity of deleterious effects of even localized environmental degradation. In the more technologically advanced communities, sophisticated systems of hazard detection have been evolved and are in actual operation. These are supplemented by state of the art remedies of social, legal or technical nature. Despite the greater and wider range of pollution hazards from the industrial communities, therefore, there is less acute or covert / chronic fallout in terms of ill effects. On the other hand, still developing countries are sources of less pollution both in terms of quantity and quality, but are more vulnerable to hazards because of primitive, malfunctioning or non-existent detection and remedial systems.

Bio-indication: the concept and its application in developing countries

The concept of bio-indication entails simply the use of a biological response or parameter for detecting definite hazard which is generally of chemical or microbiological nature, in the ecosystems of water, soil and air. In the present paper, detection of specific pollution hazards in water in the developing countries of third world will be discussed.

As remarked earlier, detection systems in ecologically advanced countries are usually highly complex, expensive and technically sophisticated. A typical example is the mussel valve movement series and electroreception in fishes detected by electric potential and monitored / projected by intricate computer networks (1-3) . It is obvious that such intricate , complex and expensive systems requiring several highly trained personnel can hardly be deployed in the vast rural, semi urban and even urban tracts of developing countries. On the other hand, rapid and growing urbanization / industrialization has already become a serious enough threat to human health and life by the hazards created, for example by pollution of its water sources. Water quality analysis regimes in many developed countries also have become obsolete by not incorporating modern hazardous chemicals such as agro products like pesticides and fertilizers. It is obviously impractical to expect water quality assessment in developing countries to take cognizance of a host of newer chemicals flooding the ecoscape. The only alternative obviously is development of newer, simpler, and readily adaptable systems of hazard detection by biological indication. Certain organisms, especially microorganisms and plants, as also some animal communities are known to occur and thrive in polluted waters of general or specific denomination (4-5). However, these bioindices are naturally restricted, geographically as well as by their generally nonspecific nature of hazard recognition. It has been argued by Sharma et al (6) that organisms cultured in laboratories would form ideal bioindicators if specific responses or parameters to toxicants can be identified. It is necessary, of course, to base these systems on species which can be easily and inexpensively reared, as also parameters which can be assessed by even unskilled high school graduates. Given the extensive and viable network of block development/welfare at village level across the country, implementation of using such novel systems becomes a definite practical possibility.

Newer techniques

At the technical level it may be pointed out that laboratory reared organisms have advantages of greater susceptibility and more genetic homogeneity leading to uniform responses which can be used as standards. Buildup of adequate databases in comprehensive laboratory studies can lend authority and authenticity to the functioning of such systems (7). An example is given here of a simple and technically easily usable species , the common yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti larvae. The species can be easily reared inexpensively by semi -skilled workers in rural conditions , without provisions of any special requirements. The first - fourth larval stages of this species require one week to 10-12 days for development .Their responses such as locomotion, growth inhibition and finally mortality can be examined against specific environmental pollutants (8). Data bases so built up can be used to predict hazard in target water source and possibly even identify its nature. The system has been envisaged for use eventually in situ in target water sources by developing suitable container devices . This would enable exposure of the test organism to actual field conditions and furnish unimpeachable authentic results.

The EWS paradigm

The paradigm conceived by Sharma (9) for developing countries incorporates the identification of several bioindicator species of organisms with the characteristics enunciated for detection of about a dozen more commonly occurring hazardous chemicals in Indian waters. Identification of a detectable hazard is to be regarded as an early warning and the system called EWS (Early Warning System). The EWS is conceived as an urgent preliminary intimation to concerned local mandatory authority for imposing immediate quarantine of the suspected water source. It is expected that detailed investigations into the nature and implications of the pollution hazard, remedial action , technical corrective measures etc. would necessarily follow as a matter of course. However, these would not come under the preview of the EWS as envisaged here. The latter would be primarily and specifically concerned only with urgent and initial high hazard detection and conveyance of warning of same to nearest competent authority .

Current status

Barring communities of some species already recognised as the pollution indices , little data or information exists on suitable biomonitors of the genre projected here. Apart form the Aedes aegypti larvae already mentioned, Sharma et al(8) has also been working on several other potential bioindicator species. These include other invertebrates such as Chironomous, Cyclops, Earthworms etc. and vertebrates such as Fish (10). Regenerative capacities of invertebrates such as Hydra and certain Piscine species have also been studied to evaluate their potential for bioindication as projected here. The overriding objective of these studies is the development of a practical, technically and economically feasible, and user (literate villagers, for example) friendly EWS for Indian, and in general, Afro-Asian communities.


Multiplying chemical and microbial wastes from industrial and other human activity, without adequately dependable systems of detection and remedy called for urgent development of early warning systems using biomonitors as described briefly above. Such research is in its infancy , and not many schools are known to be pursuing it. Its potential and impact on safety and health of teeming populations in many developing countries is inestimable.

Timely recognition of hazards which can affect health or even safety of humans, livestock and / of general environment becomes an ethical imperative for guardians of human communities, as also for the universal need for environmental quality conservation. Development of simple EWS systems to achieve this in even rudimentary centers of welfare and extension has become urgent to safeguard ecosystems and their diverse biota, including human communities, and therefore a moral responsibility for governments as well as non-government agencies.

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