Refinery’s ‘potent fog’ sparks health crisis

Lonmin's platinum refinery at Marikana.

An East Rand community has spent more than a decade in the shadows of a Lonmin platinum refinery and its residents believe it has serious health consequences for them.

[quote float = right]Respiratory conditions such as asthma can be contracted by inhaling platinum salts that come from the chimneys of platinum mines’

Nestled between marshes and factories, Reedville lies about 50km south-east of Johannesburg and next to Lonmin’s Western Platinum Refinery.

A single street is all that separates the two, and why hundreds of residents say that fumes emitted from the refinery have left them with respiratory problems and eye conditions.

Jack Mayisa heads the Reedville Environmental Task Team, which was formed about eight years ago by the community in response to widespread complaints of health problems including asthma.

Mayisa said that, like many residents in the community, he suffers frequently from watering eyes and nose bleeds. He claimed that a potent fog of emissions from the plant often rolled over Reedville in the dead of night.

Fumes worse at 2am

“The fumes are worse between the hours of 2am to 3am, when everyone is sleeping,” Mayisa said. “(The fumes) don’t have a smell but they have a taste. They taste like the thing our mothers used to use; like Jik (bleach).”

The task team’s assistant community liaison officer, Freddy Zulu, said he has watched several neighbours pack up and leave, choosing to rent or sell their homes rather than live with the emissions.

“On my street, six people have left their houses and moved to other townships because of being sick from the fumes,” said Zulu, who also blamed the emissions for the cancer that killed his three-year old Boerboel dog recently.

Just blocks from Zulu, Hendrick Modise said that fears for his children’s health prompted him to move them to his mother’s house in nearby Tsakane.

According to Mayisa, the task team provided copies of medical letters which indicated that the fumes caused their illnesses to Lonmin.

Informal survey

In 2012, the task team conducted an informal survey where more than 130 people said the fumes had made them sick. The list was handed over to Lonmin, and Mayisa said some community members were called by Lonmin to follow up on complaints but no further action had been taken.

However, Lonmin spokesperson Happy Nkhoma said the company had no knowledge of residents becoming sick from the company’s melting fumes. “We are not aware of any community members who have [become] ill from fumes out of the Lonmin smelter. If there were, we would expect them to have been picked up through our engagement process with the communities surrounding the smelter,” he said.

When pressed about the community’s allegations, the medical letters and the task team’s survey, Nkhoma said: “Your question assumes we are denying that we are aware of the ‘health situation’ as you call it. By health situation you imply local residents who have gotten ill as a result of fumes from our operations. What we are aware of, in relation to this matter, is accusations that ‘we are making people sick’, but [there is] no medical evidence that our operations caused these illnesses. So we are aware of complaints, but not a ‘health situation’,” he said.

Nkhoma added that in response to complaints from the community, the company conducted tests on its emissions and found them to be within the legal limit.

Inhaling platinum salts

“When setting these limits, I would imagine that the highly qualified government experts would have considered that they would not cause such sicknesses. We routinely conduct these monitoring exercises.”

According to Mariette Liefferink, CEO of environmental group the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, respiratory conditions such as asthma can be contracted by inhaling platinum salts that come from the chimneys of platinum mines.

“Occupational exposure to complex platinum salts, and symptomatology (the set of symptoms exhibited by workers) can be summarized as including watering of the eyes, sneezing and characteristics of severe asthma,” she said.

Rico Euripidou, an environmental health campaigner at groundWork – an environmental justice, service and developmental organisation – told Health-e News that a number of factors are thought to play a key role in the development of asthma.

“Even though the cause of asthma may be unclear it is well established that a variety of environmental irritants, such as chemicals in the air, dust, and air pollution or smoke, may exacerbate it,” said Euripidou

He added that to keep communities safe, the emitters – at the very least – needed to comply with their environmental licences.

Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe said the metro would investigate the residents’ claims. – Health-e News.

  • An edited version of this story appeared on Daily Maverick.





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