The massive sandstorm Johannesburg experienced this week may have a much longer lasting effect on it’s residents: the airborne spread of heavy metal particles.
“What a lot of people don’t realise is the sweeping up of dust from barren mining landscapes by strong winds happens extremely regularly,” says environmental activist group Federation for a Sustainable Environment CEO Mariette Liefferink.
While Bloemfontein also experienced a huge sandstorm, Gauteng’s version was unrelated, SA Weather Service senior forecaster Dipuo Tawana confirmed.
The Johannesburg storm was as a result of strong winds coupled with relatively dry conditions. The Bloemfontein storm was caused by a microburst – a sudden and localised column of sinking air caused by a small and intense downdraft.
Liefferink said it has been proven the dust from mining operations contain potentially toxic and radioactive particles. She said heavy metals synonymous with historic mining activities often nestled in decades-old mine dumps across the heavily mined Gauteng province and beyond.
She said studies had shown uranium – upon human inhalation or digestion – entered the blood stream and immediately sought residence in bone or bone marrow, from where it could cause steady degradation of the immune system, cancer or a “plethora of other ailments”. These ailments may well develop over several years, with often no immediate effects manifested – an issue prevalent for many years with the use, manufacture and processing of asbestos in South Africa until March 2008.
Mine dumps and operations are generally susceptible to wind erosion because of a lack of vegetation to hold the top layers down. “Some plants, like the Blue gum tree, can survive in the harsh conditions of a mine dump, but there is an ongoing government campaign to eradicate them from the landscape,” Liefferink said.
She said government needed to revisit its stance on the non-indigenous plant, or provide other solutions to an otherwise “very serious problem”.