Eyes burn, noses bleed, people wear masks and need headlights to drive. Radioactive waste from mine dumps is wrecking lives
It’s the start of another windy day and toxic mine dust already coats the packets of rolls, slabs of chocolate and colourful selection of fruit at Blyvoor Kwikspar. With her feather duster, Marcia Makume sighs wearily and gets to work.
She spends her days fighting to rid the shop and its stock of the dangerous residue, which is the colour of cream and fine as baby powder. It’s a losing battle. “We clean nonstop but this dust covers everything,” she says.
The culprit looms outside the store: an unvegetated mine dump blowing in a murky cloud of furiously swirling dust. Some days the dust storms get so bad that Makume and her colleagues have to wear masks to work.
The noxious material burns their eyes and makes their noses bleed. Makume, though, no longer bothers to spit out the grit.
She knows the dust could be taking its toll on her health. “Last week, I was off sick from work again. I don’t feel safe at all. Work has become a health hazard. I am always coughing.
Her employer, Desiree Barreiro, who owns the Kwikspar, has lived in Carletonville, and in the shadow of mine dumps, for most of her life. But now that mining at the stricken Blyvooruitzicht has ground to a halt, pollution is worsening, she believes.
“People are starting to say ‘we don’t want to shop here, Desiree, because it’s a health risk.’ They complain about the dust because it covers everything and they always ask me what I’m doing about this problem. Sometimes, we have to close our doors.”
They have found mine dust lodged deep in the fans of the fridges while elsewhere in the shopping complex a workshop was forced to close because the dust was infiltrating car parts. Business owners are now threatening legal action.
“Look there,” Barreiro points to a packet of bread rolls. “You put your hand on that packet; you actually can feel the grit on it. Touch it and your hands are contaminated.
“Before someone can go and eat our food in their cars, they must wipe off with wet wipes. It’s a disaster: We spend the better part of 14 hours a day here, cleaning and dusting non-stop. My staff are coughing and sick all the time.”
A Google search led her to Mariette Liefferink, an environmental activist and Sandton grandmother who has spent more than a decade crusading against mining waste.
“Our concern is not just the nuisance of the dust”, she tells Barreiro. “It’s the health impacts. Mine waste is toxic and radioactive. This dust contains arsenic, cyanide, copper and cobalt, which you inhale and ingest and that is the problem”
When microscopic particles of uranium, for example, are inhaled, they are carried deep into the lungs and can remain lodged there for years, causing chronic radiotoxicity.
Barreiro doesn’t know if the mining waste is to blame for her battle with leukaemia. But she no longer wants to risk it. “Here (in the store) we can dust and clean, but you can’t clean inside,” she says, pointing to her body. “I’ve had extensive chemotherapy. I think you actually attract bad minerals with chemo, because there’s so much toxic material…Even my grandchildren have consistent post-nasal drip. Even my doctor told me ‘while you are living in this area, you’re going to have to live with that.’
Every day, 43 tons of dust from tailings dams billow over the West Rand. The insidious material is such an overwhelming problem that the district municipality has attributed the high number of people with respiratory illnesses to the mine dust, describing it as a “health hazard” and irritating.”
After over a century of mining on the Witwatersrand, its harmful legacies like dust and water pollution endure. Carletonville falls within the heavily mined Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area, with its 36 identified radioactive hot spots, containing elevated levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc, arsenic and uranium.
Several local studies, Liefferink explains, have shown how, as a consequence of the uraniferous nature of the ore, mining residues often contain elevated concentrations of uranium and radionuclides.
Carletonville has been built around gold mines like Blyvooruitzicht, now under liquidation.
With its collapse the town’s lifeline has been cut. It’s eerie and ghostlike. And the worry for residents is the environmental impact.
“There is significant dust from mines like Blyvoor because the tailing dams are not being managed and the dust is then inhaled and ingested”, Liefferink points out.
“It deposits on crops, and that dust contains toxic and radioactive residues…The main problem with uranium is if you ingest it. It’s in your body. It’s permanent internal irradiation.”
This dust can travel for kilometres. “Do you know”, she says, “they found the dust from the West Rand’s mine dumps in Tasmania, because it disperses long distances? Imagine this dust being inside a human being.”
Some mines here spray their tailings dumps with sludge and plant trees to stop the dust fallout; many more are left barren and unrehabilitated. These make ‘snow’.
“This morning I woke up to snow in my garden, says Tieka van den Heever from nearby Elandsrand. “Everything was white. We have to close all the windows, but the dust is too heavy and contaminates everything. Even if you put the clothes on your washing line, they get dirty. You can’t wash your clothes when the wind is blowing like this.”
For locals, the dust fallout became so severe in the past two weeks that the local newspaper, the Carletonville Herald, printed photographs showing cars in Elandsrand driving with their headlights on during the day. On the windows of homes, residents scrawled “No more dust.”
In his paper, the Hazardous Nature of Dust, Malcom J McPherson, notes how respiratory problems caused by dust are among the oldest industrial ailments, with mine dust legislation firs formulated in 1912 in Joburg.
“After years of exposure to unnaturally high concentrations of dust”, he writes, “the defence system can simply become overloaded, allowing the lungs to become much less efficient as gas exchangers and, also, more susceptible to bronchial infections and pulmonary illnesses.”
Windblown dust and contaminated seepage from uncovered and unlined tailings dams, according to uranium expert Professor Frank Winde, of the School of Geography at North West University, often directly affect residents living next to – and sometimes on top of – slimes dams.
“Many active and decommissioned slimes dams are also affected by wind erosion blowing off significant amounts of fine tailings dust, especially during the dry winter months. This not only affects nearby residents but also contributes to pollution of urban water courses.”
In the crowded shacks behind one of Blyvoor’s dumps, the Matos brothers, who hail from Mozambique, have long learned to live with the dust. “People here get very sick” says Ernest Matos.
“There is a lot of coughing, of illnesses, but we are used to it. People have no other choice”, he shrugs.
Dust pollution is a crisis that provincial authorities are failing to address, charges Liefferink. In 2011 the Gauteng government drew up a hard-hitting feasibility study for the reclamation of mine residue areas, most radioactive, within the Witwatersrand.
It noted how mine dust is a human health risk and how an integrated epidemiological approach to all aspects linked to the problem was urgent.
“The dust also potentially contains a number of hazardous substances that can result in chemical toxicity. Tailings with high level of radioactive material can cause radiological pollution.”
“Collectively the dust problem poses a significant health risk and reduces the quality of life for a large number of citizens”, the study said.
But nothing has happened. “A project was called for to start addressing radioactive mine residue areas. But there was no funding.” Liefferink reveals.
Like the 6 000 ownerless and unrehabilitated mines that dot South Africa, the project was abandoned. “When it comes to implementation, nothing happens. The anecdotal evidence of bleeding noses, sinus, eye irritations and asthma, pulmonary disease and bronchitis is overwhelming in the Central Rand, East Rand and West Rand, which residents most commonly attribute to dust fallout,” says Liefferink.
“We cannot say it’s caused by mine dust, because no health quantification has ever been done. This is urgently needed to exonerate the mines, or at least to know what the risks of tailings dust to human health are.”
Liefferink wonders how Blyvoor’s uncertain future will affect the environment. “It will be another abandoned mine will rock dumps that will generate significant acid rock drainage – another source of dust contamination, and with toxic and radioactive metals.
“Many people say ‘Ag, we don’t see people falling down dead so how serious is this issue?’ But that of course, is very insensitive because death is your last indicator of poor health. It’s final.