06 June 2005

'Erin Brockovich II' in Durban South?

High levels of the toxic chemical chromium-6 - the villain in the movie 'Erin Brockovich' - have been found in the groundwater and soil of residential Merebank, Durban.

High levels of the toxic chemical chromium-6 - the villain in Erin Brockovich - have been found in the groundwater and soil of residential Merebank, Durban.

Chromium-6 was brought to the public’s attention by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, based on the true story of how the residents of Hinkley, California, won a $333 million settlement from the Pacific Gas and Electric company for contaminating groundwater wells with chromium-6.

Hinkley residents reported many health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

Chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, is produced by several industrial processes. If inhaled, it increases the risk for lung cancer and problems like ulcers in the nose and perforation of the nasal septum. If swallowed, it can cause digestive upsets, stomach ulcers and organ damage. Skin contact can cause skin ulcers and allergic reactions. Studies have linked chromium-6 to birth defects in animals.

The industry thought to be responsible in this case is an industrial plant now owned by Bayer/Lanxess in Tomango Road, Merebank. The plant manufactured products containing chromium-6 from the 1940s to the early 1990s.

Tests conducted on groundwater and soil samples from the area found levels of chromium-6 greatly exceeding acceptable safety standards. Prof Faizal Bux of the Durban Institute of Technology, one of the institutions involved in sample testing, says that if anyone came into direct contact with the groundwater, they would definitely be at increased risk for health problems.

The contaminated groundwater lies about 2m under part of the residential area near the plant, and extends over 9500m², potentially affecting 34 houses.

Desmond D’Sa, chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, says that he has seen broken drinking-water pipes that contained visual evidence of ‘yellow chrome’.

D’Sa claims there are also signs of chemical contamination in the fruit trees in the area.

But to know for sure the extent and degree of contamination, further studies will need to be conducted on drinking-water samples, and on fruit and vegetables that many residents grow in their gardens as a food source, says Bux.

“It will be a very serious situation if it’s found that these plants contain chromium 6. Then it will be necessary to conduct a survey to see who’s been eating fruit or vegetables grown in the area, as that will carry a high health risk.”

Rajesh Hoolal, a senior environmental health officer with the eThekwini Health Department, says that initial testing of tap water did not indicate contamination, and that there are no boreholes in use that would put residents at risk of drinking the groundwater.

This, together with the fact that no symptoms directly linked to chromium-6 exposure have been reported, have not yet warranted medical testing of residents, says Hoolal.

“Testing for exposure is premature at this stage. Extensive further geohydrological studies and evaluation of results are being done to get a more accurate picture of the source of the contamination and how it is migrating in the environment.”

The cleanup process, the cost of which Bayer/Lanxess is likely to be at least partly liable, is only likely to begin early next year, and will run into the ‘hundreds of millions’, says Hooblal. In the meantime, the eThekwini Health Department has advised residents to take care not to come into contact with the contaminated groundwater.

Protective measures against chromium-6
The following cautionary measures should be taken by Merebank residents in the affected area. (Many of these measures are also relevant to anyone living near industrial areas where the groundwater might be polluted):

  • Don’t use borehole water. Inform the authorities about any boreholes so the water can be tested at those points.
  • Don’t dig down too deep e.g. when gardening or building, especially not where the water table is high. Don't attempt to sink any further boreholes.
  • If you notice any water that looks yellow, contact the Health Department.
  • If someone swallows contaminated groundwater, they should drink lots of clean water, but don't induce vomiting. Seek immediate medical attention.
  • If you think contaminated groundwater has touched your skin or eyes, then rinse the affected area with lots of clean water, and get immediate medical help.
  • Don’t allow children to play in the soil.
The eThekwini Health Department can be contacted on 361 00 00. Bayer/Lanxess has also a provided a toll-free information line: 0800 204 541.

(Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24)
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