Watch out: your delicate crockery could contain high amounts of lead

A 16-year-old student’s curiosity led to a scary discovery at the National Referral Centre for Lead Projects (NRCLP) in Bengaluru.

Kaustabh Sharma, a student of The Shri Ram School-Aravali campus in Gurugram, Haryana, tested 25 branded ceramic cups, saucers, and plates, and found that all of them had dangerously high lead content, well beyond the permissible limits of 90 parts per million (ppm). In each brand, lead levels were more than 1,000 ppm, while eight had more than 8,000 ppm of lead.

Director of NRCLP Thuppil Venkatesh, known as the ‘lead man of India’, said this was probably the first time such an analysis had been done of branded crockery manufactured in India.


According to Kaustabh, who is currently interning at NRCLP, in the field of toxicity, lead poisoning is possibly the least covered. “Once lead enters the body, it can affect every single systembe it the nervous system, cardiovascular or reproductive system. Since Indian food is normally hot and acidic in nature, there is a greater risk of leaching,” said Kaustabh. Often the glaze used to give a shiny coat to the porcelain dish is the culprit.

Dr. Venkatesh added that lead in crockery can leach when hot fluids are poured into it. “Lead in food is highly dangerous to health; in women it can lead to early onset of lower back problems and osteoporosis,” he said, adding that stainless steel is the safer option.

The study was carried out using Field Portable X-Ray Fluorescence, a hand-held device that can detect concentration of metals. Any citizen can walk into the centre, situated on St. John’s Medical College campus, to test items for lead content.

(Originally published in The Hindu)

‘When we ask for our passbooks, they threaten to throw us out’

11BGPOWRAKARMIKA2Twenty-four-year old Shanti looked at the calculator perplexed. According to the trade unionist standing before her, who had just computed her wage break-up, she was supposed to be earning Rs. 17,440 a month as a contract pourakarmika under the city corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). “Rs. 17,000, not Rs. 1,700?” she asks to confirm.

According to Shanti, she and nearly 50 other women from a settlement in Mahadevapura zone get Rs. 180 a day from the contractor. However, the contractor pays them only a week’s wages (Rs. 1,260) and keeps the remaining three weeks’ worth of wages for himself. “When we ask, he says he will pay us later,” she says.

The irony is that the contractor has no legal role in the payment of wages. Under the existing system, monthly wages should go directly to a bank account in the name of the worker.

The contractor submits a bill to the BBMP with the number of workdays put in by the pourakarmikas on his roll, based on which the BBMP remits the wages to the workers’ bank accounts. However, in several wards in Mahadevapura zone, contractors have confiscated the passbooks and ATM cards of pourakarmikas working under them. Many of the pourakarmikas, who come from other parts of Karnataka or from neighbouring States, do not even know they are being cheated of their hard-earned money.

Those who dare to speak up are either threatened with assault or thrown out of their homes.

“When we ask for our passbooks, they tell us to pack up our bags and go,” says Muniyappa*, a pourakarmika from Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, who has been working for the past 10 years but does not know his account number. The threat of eviction is real: last December, the breadwinners of 60 families who had gone to the bank to demand their passbooks were threatened and forced to leave.

“As soon as they stepped out of the bank, the contractor was informed of their ‘disobedience’. All the 60 families vacated within a week. They didn’t collect their PF or payment arrears due since 2012,” says C.P. Appanna, State secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).

Sitting ducks

The supremacy of the contractor in this arrangement leaves sanitary workers open to exploitation. “Even if someone in our family dies, we can’t take long leave as we risk losing our job. Only after begging and pleading do they take us back on the rolls,” says Veerendra*, a pourakarmika who has been on the BBMP rolls for seven years.

If they complain, they are marked absent and lose a day’s pay.

In another part of Mahadevapura zone, 20 pourakarmika families live in tarpaulin tents on a dried-up lakebed. They have migrated from Ballari district in north Karnataka and live in constant fear of their homes being washed away. None of the 20-odd children there go to school.

“Unless we do something, these children will also grow up to be like us,” says 18-year-old Shankar*, a class 6 dropout who has been sweeping the streets since the age of 14.

Although the BBMP does not have a gender-based wage structure, there is a gender discrepancy in payment: women get Rs. 180 a day, while the men get Rs. 250.

“The contract system is unnecessary and gives an opportunity for human rights violations to take place,” says Maitreyee Krishnan of Manthan Law, who fights for the rights of contract pourakarmikas.

N. Manjunath Prasad, BBMP Commissioner, says the civic body has not received any complaints about irregularities in wage payment.

“The money is deposited directly in the bank accounts of pourakarmikas. I have not received a complaint about their passbooks being taken away. If we get a complaint, we will take action.”

Promised pay

Contract pourakarmikas in Bengaluru were promised an increased wage of Rs. 14,400 plus risk allowance of Rs. 3,000 in August 2016. Only recently have a few of them received the increased pay, after a prolonged protest this March. Several others have arrears running up to several thousands of rupees due from the last wage hike in 2012.

They were also promised toilets, safety gear and regularisation of services by March 2017, none of which has materialised.

(*Names changed on request. Originally published here.)

Innovations galore at IISc design fest

From a flight simulator controlled by eye gaze to a device to help one-handed women to put on sanitary napkins on their own, the annual design festival of the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM), Indian Institute of Science, began on Friday by showcasing simple, elegant solutions to societal problems.

The students who presented their work at the event — Ripples 2017 — are undergoing Master of Design (M. Des.) or M. Tech by Research and PhD at CPDM.

“Although the focus of the course has been on form and functionality, it is to the credit of our students that they often choose to work on problems that exist in society,” said B. Gurumoorthy, professor at CPDM. “Many of the prototypes developed are in the field of assistive technology, improving farm productivity, water conservation and mobility,” he said.

Amaresh Chakrabarti, professor and chairman, CPDM, said, “We tell the students to find a problem, solve it, show that it works, and take it to society. A third of our products gets patented and about 10 % of students go on to incubate and work as startups.”

Eye control

Imagine you are a pilot on a mission or a commercial pilot with the lives of a hundred passengers in your hands. The three seconds it takes to take your eyes off the screen to push a control stick can be a matter of life or death.

A laboratory with CPDM has developed an idea that could reduce this time by half. They’ve developed a flight simulator setup which can respond to the eye’s gaze to control the cursor on screen.

J. Rajesh, a research student with CPDM, said this technology could improve accuracy and response time. “While using a joystick would take two to three seconds, eye control can quicken response time to as little as 1.5 seconds,” he said.

Personalised cooling

A tabletop cooler designed by Lopamudra Choudhury and Kavya Gandhe, second-year M.Des. students, uses ice packed in bottles and a low RPM fan to cool the immediate surroundings. “It makes more sense to cool the immediate environment than the whole room,” said Ms. Gandhe.

Another project by two former students uses a similar method to make a ‘cooling blanket’. “We found that while most households do not have an air conditioner, most have refrigerators which could be used to freeze ice,” said prototype designer Samrat Sankhya of the 2016 batch. The blanket also has a sensor to sense ambient temperature and maintain an optimum cooling level.

Helping hand

M. Des. students Suyog Dhanwade and Shubham Pudke have tried to make a device that would help women with only one hand put on sanitary napkins on their own.

“During our initial survey, we asked women to try putting on sanitary napkins with one hand and tell us the problems they faced,” said Shubham. Difficulty in proper alignment and support were the main issues. “We made a platform that can be kept under the legs, and using its support, the napkin could be placed in position,” he said. The idea was presented at the NordDesign competition in Norway last year.

Among the displays was a self-raising chair that would help elders to get up without putting pressure on their knees. The seat of the chair rises to an inclination with the press of a button.

Other projects included a portable vaccine carrier, a self-rocking cradle, mechanical pepper picker, an electric lamp that changes shape, and a stretcher-cum-wheelchair that can be used to navigate small spaces.

(Originally published here.)

Health alert: ‘20.7% of Bengaluru children overweight or obese’

The hours spent cooped up in classrooms and in front of electronic gadgets was bound to have an effect: A cross-sectional screening of nearly one lakh children across schools in Bengaluru has shown that almost 20.7% were either overweight or obese, and 13.3% at risk of developing lifestyle diseases in adulthood.

The results of the screening, conducted by healthcare startup, AddressHealth, between January and December 2016, tie in with a 2015 study conducted by researchers from St. John’s Research Institute (SJRI).

According to the study led by Rebecca Kuriyan, associate professor in clinical nutrition and lifestyle management, SJRI, which sampled 1,913 schoolchildren in Bengaluru, high obesity indicators were associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure.

“More than obesity, the levels of overweight children had increased in the last few years in both research and clinical practice,” said Dr. Kuriyan, who has been studying childhood obesity for several years. “A waist-to-height ratio greater than 0.5 puts them at risk of hypertension and other lifestyle diseases in adulthood. Measuring this ratio is an inexpensive initial screening tool that everyone can use,” Dr. Kuriyan said. She added that armed with this information, parents could make positive lifestyle changes like increasing physical activity and inculcating healthy eating habits, which would protect children in the future.

The AddressHealth survey included a equal number of children from private schools ranging from affordable (where fees are less than ₹15,000 a year) to expensive schools (where fees was more than ₹45,000 a year). “The aim is to bring preventive healthcare to parents, so that they understand the need to instil healthy habits in their children,” said Anand Lakshman, founder of AddressHealth. “If we can identify health problems at a young age and take corrective measures early on, we will be making an investment in their future well-being,” he added.

The screening threw up other startling results too. Nearly 30% of the children needed some kind of dental intervention, and 13.6% had vision problems.

Trend across the country

Obesity and overweight levels have increased sharply in India in the last 15 years.

A WHO-supported study collated data from 52 different studies across the country to show that combined prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity recorded between 2013 and 2015 was 19.3%, a significant increase from the earlier prevalence of 16.3% reported in 2001-2005. The study was published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in February 2016 titled ‘Epidemiology of childhood overweight & obesity in India: A systematic review’.

One of the researchers behind the study, Krishnan Anand, professor at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, said childhood stunting owing to poor nutrition in early childhood was also contributed to the high levels of obesity among Indian adults.

“Since Body Mass Index is inversely proportional to square of height and early nutrition plays a major role in determining height, a person who was stunted owing to poor economic conditions is likely to have increased BMI when their economic situation improves later on,” Dr. Anand said.

Terming obesity as a neglected health issue in the country, he blamed the reduced importance given to physical activity in schools and homes for the current crisis.

(Originally published in The Hindu)

At this ICU, seven nurses look after 45 newborns

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the government-run Vani Vilas Hospital that handles extremely premature babies and babies with congenital birth defect — which require round-the-clock care — has a severe shortage of nurses.Continue reading “At this ICU, seven nurses look after 45 newborns”

The stealth superbug, decoded

A team of scientists in Bengaluru is behind the genome sequencing of Candida auris, a fungus that has caused disease outbreaks in five continents this year

On November 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a leading public health institute in Atlanta, U.S., reported 13 cases of infection by the deadly fungus Candida auris in several parts of the country. Apart from the U.S., outbreaks have been reported this year in eight countries across four continents — India, Pakistan, South Korea, Kuwait, South Africa, Colombia, Venezuela and United Kingdom.

A paper by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru has shown that many cases of Candida auris have been misdiagnosed in the country. In 2015, a team led by Utpal Tatu, professor of biochemistry, IISc, completed the genotype sequencing of Candida auris, widely considered an emerging superbug fungus as it does not respond to conventional antifungal drugs. The genome data were submitted to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. and is now considered as the reference genome across the globe.

India, an epicentre

Candidiasis is a fungal infection caused by Candida species, often seen in patients whose immune system is compromised, such as AIDS patients or in case of transplants, malignancies and the use of catheters. Most of the infections are hospital-acquired, especially in ICU settings.

The first case reported was in Japan in an external ear canal infection in a patient in 2009. Since then, most cases have been invasive in nature and India has one of the highest number of infections caused by this superbug, says PhD student Sharanya Chatterjee, a member of the IISc team who studied isolates of Candida from a private hospital in Bengaluru. She found that in many cases, the fungus had been misidentified with another Candida species, Candida haemulonii.

Dr. Tatu’s team was among the first to report the high rate of misdiagnosis of Candida auris. “Current diagnostic procedures to detect fungal infections cannot detect Candida auris, which is resistant to common antifungal treatment. In several patients, by the time we had made the correct diagnosis, it was too late,” says Ms. Chatterjee.

The team of scientists has developed a diagnostic tool to detect Candida aurisusing polymerase chain reactions. “The rise of more virulent forms is connected to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics,” says Dr. Tatu, adding, “The strain found in the United States was resistant to even the third class of antifungal treatment.”

Highly resistant fungus

One reason for the high resistance to existing drugs is that this species has a higher number of drug efflux pumps compared to other species, says Ms. Chatterjee. Drug efflux pumps are proteins that prevent other drugs from crossing the cell membrane. The IISc team’s research was published in the September 2015 issue of BMC Genomics.

Sudarshan Ballal, director, Manipal Hospitals, which provided the isolates for the study, says the research highlighted the need for clinical-academic collaboration. “We have been able to dissect a fungus found commonly in hospitals and study it at the genome level. Some fungi look alike at macroscopic level, but their genotype could be very different, sort of like twins,” he says, adding, “If you know it is Candida auris from day one, you could start off with treatment which it is sensitive to.” Dr. Ballal agrees with Dr. Tatu about indiscriminate use of antibiotics as a possible cause: “Killing all kinds of bacteria gives space for fungi to grow.”

Dr. Tatu and his team of researchers feel that it is high time officials took note of the situation. “It is very difficult to establish how many cases have been misdiagnosed in India as very little study has been done on this, and since most patients who acquire Candida are already quite ill, a delayed diagnosis could be fatal,” he says.

Echoing Dr. Ballal, Dr. Tatu says the emergence of superbugs is a small example of the lacunae between academic research that studies the current disease scenario and current clinical practices, and shows the need for greater collaboration between the two. Apart from Candida auris, Dr. Tatu’s team is also studying numerous other infections, their evolutionary origins, diagnosis and treatment, with a view to filling this gap.

(Originally published here. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Creative Commons. Photo for representative purpose only) 

New species of Pika discovered

pika discoveredMammal’s discovery in Sikkim made by NCBS team

Scientists claim to have discovered a new species of Pika, a mammal belonging to the rabbit and hare family ( Lagomorpha ), in the Himalayas in Sikkim. After six years of research, a team of international collaborators, led by scientists from Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) announced the discovery.

The team published their findings in the Journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution in September. “Discovering a new mammal in 2016 from a hotspot like the Himalayas proves that we need to conduct much more research in the region,” said NCBS scientist and first author Nishma Dahal, who hails from Sikkim.

Distinct tissues

The team collected fecal pellets and tissue samples of what they expected to be the Asian Pika and found them to be “quite distinct from all other species”.

“We needed international collaboration to confirm the tissue samples were different from all existing species,” Ms. Dahal added.

Pikas are members of the rabbit family and live in the mountains or in temperate regions. The common name “pika” is used for any member of the Ochotonidae family. According to Ms. Dahal, Pikas do not hibernate unlike other mammalian species inhabiting such cold climates.

“Pikas are a keystone species and ecosystem engineers, and studying their evolution can shed more light on the Himalayan ecosystem,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, whose laboratory at NCBS led the study. Although the animal looks similar to the Moupin Pika, genetically it is completely different. “There are specific differences which are not visible in physical observation and only on closer study. But genetically it is very different, and we are proposing to elevate the sub-species to a different species,” said Ms. Dalal.

Ecological niche

The discovery points to the need for more research on Himalayan ecology and the importance of international collaboration in validating new research. The research began as a study of the impact of climate change on the Himalayan biota. “Back when NCBS got funding from the Department of Biotechnology in 2010, research on the American pika was making news. Few lower elevation populations were reported to have gone extinct and that was corroborated to increased temperature in those regions,” said Ms. Dahal. This led the team to study the Asian pika .

Researchers from the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia; Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; Stanford University, Stanford, USA, collaborated in the research

(Originally published here.)

Parasports: going beyond limitations

Until Roger Bannister ran a mile under a minute in 1954, it was thought impossible for humans to run that fast. Today most international runners can meet the target. If sport is about overcoming limitations, para athletes are some of the greatest mindbenders: for instance, how does a knee amputee play badminton, or a visually impaired person remember all the game positions in chess?

ASTHA, an NGO working for persons with disabilities, organised a sports meet for persons with and without physical disabilities st Devanahalli in the outskirts of Bengaluru on Tuesday. Close to 70 people participated in blind chess, wheelchair tennis, para badminton and para table tennis.

Sunil Jain, a wheelchair athlete and the brains behind the event, feels sport can empower the differently abled. “Think of how a person without hands would do archery,” he says.

As I rack my brain for an answer, he explains, “In the last two minutes, you’ve thought outside your body and its limitations. This is what a person with disability does every time they pick up a sport.” His goal is to offer differently abled athletes opportunities to train and hone their skills.

Sheryl, an M.Sc. Biology student, played badminton for the first time at the event after losing her leg in an accident in January. “I used to play for fun earlier, but now I’m thinking of playing professionally,” she says. As she and other players pick up the racquet, the game is slower than usual, they pause to bend and pick the cork when it hits the floor, or stop when the shot is too far to attempt. But a few minutes into the game, the prosthetics seem to  disappear: there are only a bunch of players giving their best on court.

In the chess room, a group of visually impaired persons from Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled in HSR Layout blitz through the chess board as they feel and move their pieces. Playing against sighted players makes no difference to their game. It’s not just chess, Basavaraj, Prashant and Thimmaiah also play blind cricket, and being differently-abled has done little to quell their sense of humour. “He’s the Dhoni of our group,” says Prashant, pointing to a friend, “maybe you can join his fan club!”

Although the winners were announced in the evening, every participant wears a look of accomplishment, from the wheelchair athletes playing lawn tennis to the visually impaired swimmers, many of whom were trained to swim for the first time on Tuesday by international para swimmer Sharath M. Gaikwad.
And to answer the question posed in the beginning: one archer Sunil knows grips the bow between his legs and pulls the arrow with his lips. Because few things are unattainable if you put your mind to it, and every para athlete can testify to that.
(An edited version of this article appeared here in The Hindu)

Under Bengaluru’s trees

Did you know the tamarind tree came from Ethiopia two thousand years ago? Or that the vast majority of Bengaluru’s avenue trees are native to South America? In fact, so many commonly-used plants have come from that continent, the famous botanist and Kannada writer B.G.L. Swamy wrote a book called Namme Hotteyalli South America (South America in our stomach).

If you’ve ever stopped tree.jpgin the middle of the road to admire a gorgeous Pink Shower tree in bloom, a tree walk is right up your alley. The tree walk I dropped in for took place at Rest
House Park on Museum Road. We were led by our guide Arun, who, while not tree hugging or bird watching, runs a restaurant near Brigade Road. As for the tree walkers, they were an eclectic bunch, ranging from an editor of an e-magazine on sustainable living, an architect with a keen interest in permaculture farming, and a Ph.D. researcher from Los Angeles.

The walk nearly did not happen, because just as our guide began with a brief history on Bengaluru’s gardens, a security guard took umbrage to our “meeting”. After we convinced him of our harmless intentions, he reluctantly agreed. And then we set off.

“This here is the rain tree,” our guide began airily. The rain tree is a native of South America, its name possibly a shortened form of rainforest tree. It was once a popular avenue tree due to its leafy canopy, but of late municipal authorities have stopped planting it as its branches fall during heavy rains. It is a fast growing tree, says Arun, its soft timber a perfect choice for nesting barbets.

All the way from Madagascar

Next in line is the Gulmohar, a native of Madagascar; the mast tree (also called the False Ashoka!) with its tall, skinny frame and drooping leaves, and the Cassia Javanica or the Pink Shower Tree.

There are old favourites, the east India almond tree, the soap nut tree, the cannon ball tree. Fruit trees: mango, jackfruit, avocado and fig. Thin reed-like golden bamboo and stately silver oaks and mahogany trees. There are gorgeous flowering specimens like the flaming-red African tulip and the purple Jacaranda, waiting for spring to burst out in colour. It is astonishing that a space so concise can host more than 22 different species of trees.

Arun also identified a staggering variety of birds in the area, sometimes by just their call. Green enclaves are like magnets that draw the birds in, he stresses. The talk veers to current conservation methods, and how for various reasons, trees the city was known for are no longer being planted. Fast-growing trees are often adopted in sapling drives as they make for “good figures.”

We come to the end of our walk, each lingering in their own thoughts. There is a deep satisfaction in learning the names of trees and birds, it’s almost a feeling of groundedness. We talk about the altercation with the guard, about how ‘public’ our public spaces truly are. Someone fondly recalls the trees from their childhood, and reminisce how their beloved city is fast losing something that defined it for decades.

“It’s easy to learn about trees,” says our guide, before parting. “They aren’t going anywhere soon.”

Now that’s definitely a thought to take home.

(This piece first appeared in The Hindu Metroplus)

Study shows lifestyle diseases on rise in low-income families

Yasmin (45), who lives in a crowded colony in Kadugondanahalli (K.G. Halli), had to have her leg amputated due to uncontrolled diabetes. The reason: she was not regular with medicines for years due to ignorance about the possible complications that could arise.

Her neighbour Husseinbi (60) has been suffering from hypertension for 12 years. She spends anywhere between Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 every month on medicines. Her husband is an auto driver.

For people from low-income families suffering diseases like hypertension and diabetes, a major component of their income goes to buying medicines. A study by the Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bengaluru, shows that many choose to forgo treatment, going to the doctor only when complications arise. The study has been published in BMC Public Health, an open access peer-reviewed journal. It covered patients in K.G. Halli from 2009 to 2015.


Survey findings

A survey (in 2009-2010) revealed that among approximately 45,000 individuals surveyed, 8.6% reported chronic illnesses

When the team conducted a follow-up survey in 2013, there was a 1.8 % increase in self-reported cases of diabetes and 1% increase in cases of hypertension

Overall, there was a 3.4% increase in chronic illnesses


Diabetes spares no one

Upendra Bhojani, Assistant Director at IPH, who published the study, said that lifestyle diseases are being reported in larger numbers among low-income families.

“There is a shift in the way diseases are distributed, with more cases being reported among lower-income groups,” he said.

The IPH team is encouraging patients to maintain their medical history and are given a book which they are advised to take to the doctor.

B.S. Thriveni, director of Sarvagna Health Care Institute (SHCI), said that while primary health centres offer first-generation drugs, they are ill-equipped to deal with complicated cases or those that need long-acting insulin. “There are times when insulin is out of stock or the patient needs advanced medicines when the first-generation drugs do not work,” said Dr. Thriveni.


The SHCI offers medicines free to patients from low-income families and subsidies to others. Almost all patients visiting the clinic for dialysis developed kidney complications due to uncontrolled diabetes, which could have been prevented through medication.

“We give short-acting insulin when stock is available,” said Meenakshi, duty nurse in the community health centre at K.G. Halli. First-generation medicines for diabetes are provided free to all patients. But patients are asked to buy second-generation drugs and long-acting insulin, which are expensive, she said.

When insulin is out of stock or the patient needs advanced medicines, the government health system falls short – B.S. Thriveni, director, Sarvagna Health Care Institute

(Originally published here.)