Kerry Cullinan, Health-e, 05-09-2002
The Bareki Tribal Authority and the concerned residents of Heuningvlei in the North West province have demanded that Gencor and it’s subsidiary, Gefco, clean up an old mine and mill sites that they believe pose a serious health hazard.
In letters of demand delivered to Gefcor and Gencor this week, lawyer Richard Spoor said the sites posed a grave and significant threat to the health and safety of the people of Heuningvlei.
One of the greatest concerns is the health of some 50 pupils who attend primary school in a building right on the old mill site.
Blue asbestos, one of the most toxic and carcinogenic forms of asbestos, was mined at Heuningvlei until 1979. Inhaling even a few strands of the asbestos is enough to cause mesothelioma, or cancer of the lungs, an extremely painful terminal illness.
The mill site is extensively polluted with asbestos dust and fibre and this threatens the health and safety of the children, said Spoor.
According to Spoor, Gencor and Gefco neither cleaned the site properly nor warned residents of the dangers of asbestos when they left.
Many Heuningvlei residents are already suffering from asbestos-related diseases and new cases are being diagnosed each week, said Spoor.
Steven Kotoloane of the Heuningvlei Asbestos Interest Group, said people in his community had grown up with asbestos and had come regard the high levels of death and disease caused by asbestos as a normal part of life in the Kalahari. The interest group has joined the Bareki Tribal Authority in demanding the clean-up.
According to the letter of demand sent to the chief executive officer of Gefco and Gencor’s directors, the mill site is heavily contaminated with loose asbestos fibres and the asbestos tailing dump is not adequately covered.
Aside from the school on the mill site, there is a petrol station directly opposite and a much-used path over the tailings. Animals have free access to the site and some have burrowed into the tailings, leaving them exposed.
Although a concrete slab was cast over a part of the mill site containing asbestos fibre, the sides are not sealed and copious quantities of asbestos fibre have been released.
Gefco and Gencor have until today (Friday 6 September) to notify the Bareki Tribal Authority and the Heuningvlei Asbestos Interest Group of the steps they propose to take to remedy the situation. Failure to do so will result in the two organisations resorting to court action to force a clean-up.
South Africa has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, as we were one of a handful of countries that extensively mined the most dangerous blue asbestos.
Mesothelioma is a fatal tumour of the pleura (lining of the lungs) and the peritoneum (lining of abdominal cavity), and other parts of the body, according to Jaine Roberts of the Industrial Health Unit at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine.
It can only be caused by inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibres, she adds, and even minimal, or short-term, exposure to asbestos fibres can cause it.
Experts agree that it can take between 20 and 40 years from exposure for the cancer to manifest itself.
The Health and Safety Executive in the UK stated in 1984: For all types of asbestos no 'safe level' of exposure could be identified.
For this reason, Roberts believes household goods such as asbestos flower pots, water tanks and roofs should be replaced.
But disposal is a problem as fibres are virtually indestructible, she warns. The body has no defence against the ultra-fine asbestos fibres, which, once in the lungs, can also migrate through tissue and penetrate the lymph system and the bloodstream.
Mesothelioma became a notifiable and scheduled industrial disease in October 1979, the year Heuningvlei closed down.
Asbestos products are banned in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Belgium and Saudi Arabia.
(Kerry Cullinan, Health-e, 05-09-2002)