Residents use radioactive mud as an acne cure

Experts warn old mine dumps could cause birth defects and brain disorders

Patience Mjadu can’t bear the pimples that dot her face. So, like other women in her impoverished informal settlement, she has resorted to a novel but potentially dangerous form of treatment involving toxic and radioactive mining waste.


“I’ve heard that it really works to cure pimples and other people in my area are using it,” explains Mjadu, an unemployed mother of four, her face smeared with the yellow sludge. “I don’t think it can be bad for me.”

Mjadu lives in Tudor Shaft a declared radiological hotspot perched on a radioactive mine dump in Krugersdorp. But she and her neighbours should no longer be there.

In an unprecedented move earlier this year, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) recommended that Mogale City municipality relocate the thousands of residents of Tudor Shaft after it found elevated levels of radiation in the settlement could lead to a “potentially hazardous situation.”

Earlier this month, the NNR told Parliament that it had taken regulatory decisions on residential developments that pose an immediate risk to the public. “The NNR exercised its mandate in protecting residents of Tudor Shaft.”

Mogale City maintains it has moved close to 200 families from Tudor Shaft and its neighbouring informal settlements and that it is working with the NNR to rehabilitate Tudor Shaft. NNR spokesman Gino Moonsamy claims over 500 people have been moved.

But residents like Jeffrey Ramorute say this is untrue. “Only around eight shacks, with about 35 families, were moved from this site” says the community leader, pointing to a yellow outcrop of mine sludge, where Professor Chris Busby, a world expert in uranium, in December found radiation levels inside a shack 15 times higher than regulatory limits. “These people are lying if they say they’ve moved everybody. We’re still here, living in poor conditions.”

But a new government report believes the NNR ruling is “likely …to be relevant for a number of other sites” and high-risks informal settlements will need to be moved to minimize human health risks.

“The unfortunate case involving the NNR-enforced relocation of the Tudor Shaft illustrates there are powerful scientific arguments for preventing human settlement in or close to these mine residue areas (MRAs) until toxic and radiogenic materials have been completely removed, the area radiometrically surveyed and monitored until cleared for safety by the NNR’, states the final draft of the report, written by water scientist Anthony Turton, and commissioned by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Hundreds of shacks, and thousands of people, remain in Tudor Shaft. “Look there” says dismayed Mariette Liefferink, an environmental activist, as she gestures to a group of children playing on the site where Busby took his radioactivity readings.

“Children continue to play on that site (where the shacks were removed),” says Liefferink. “Many are barefoot. What has happened here is not sufficient. People are still living on the tailings, on unsafe land… It’s a really desperate situation.”

Residents of Tudor Shaft are exposed to high concentrations of heavy metals which are carcinogens, as well as radioactive uranium which also leaves them vulnerable to birth defects and brain disorders.

Their plight is mirrored in the other mining catchments of the Witwatersrand, where waterways are polluted and radiological hazards linger – the legacy of 130 years of mining activity in the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area.

The GDARD report, completed in July but ostensibly being kept under wraps, declares that the 380 mine dumps and slimes dams in Gauteng are causing radioactive dust fallout, toxic water pollution and soil contamination. There are other risks too of ground instability and collapse above abandoned mine workings.

High density residential areas, together with household food gardens in close proximity to MRAs expose the poorer sector of the population to grave health risks, says the report, Feasibility Study on Reclamation of Mine Residue Areas for Development Purposes: Phase II Strategy and Implementation Plan.

The report identifies inadequate monitoring of MRAs and states that local and provincial government or individual officials within specific departments can be held responsible for failings in their duty of care, considering the impact of MRAs on the environment and on human health. It urges that “universities and nuclear physicists, must be pulled in and researchers attracted to the field”, and calls for an “integrated epidemiological approach to all aspects of MRA related or induced conditions.”

But it envirsions rehabilitating and redeveloping MRAs as “new eco-tourism” destinations in recognition of the beneficial economic role that mining has played.

Liefferink hopes the MRAs that blight Gauteng will be rehabilitated. But in the polluted Wonderfonteinspruit catchment, little has been done, other than “cosmetic changes” that have failed to address widespread contamination. “Not even the basic issues have been addressed. There are spillages of radioactive material that are never cleaned up,” she says.

“We’re all talking about COP17, and the impacts of climate change, but we’re perpetuating groundwater and surface water contamination….”

“We’re all talking about COP17, and the impacts of climate change, but we’re perpetuating groundwater and surface water contamination….”

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