Just How Toxic Is That Hungarian Sludge?

By Eliza Strickland | October 12, 2010 2:33 pm

Ever since the wall burst on a reservoir of industrial waste at a Hungarian alumina plant last week–killing eight people and deluging the countryside with red muck–shocked environmental officials have been scrambling to determine how dangerous the sludge is. It’s common knowledge that the initial torrent was highly basic in pH, which caused hundreds of people to suffer from chemical burns. But once the material was neutralized, the thinking went, the danger should be past.

However, Greenpeace activists have been on the ground in Hungary over the past week, and the red mud they’ve collected and analyzed contained twice as much arsenic as expected, as well as surprisingly high levels of mercury and chromium.

The study has met with scepticism from Hungarian chemists, partly because bauxite, the ore from which most aluminium oxide (and ultimately aluminium) is derived, contains neither mercury nor much arsenic. However, Greenpeace says that the findings have been confirmed by an independent laboratory in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s own figures — based on samples taken by scientists last week at two sites in the area — are yet to be published. [Nature News]

The head of Greenpeace campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe, a chemist named Herwig Schuster, says there may be an obvious explanation for the arsenic and mecury’s presence: The alumina plant may have mixed its industrial wastes.

Greenpeace … suspects that the leaked basin may have contained toxic waste besides the sludge from aluminium oxide production. “Environmental standards for old plants in Hungary are lagging far behind the European rules for newly built production facilities,” says Schuster. “We don’t even know in which year the dam was built and how often it was modified.” [Nature News]

Hopefully a new influx of experts will bring firm answers. Today, a team arrived in Hungary from the World Health Organization to investigate the environmental health risks posed by contaminated water or sediment. So far, the agency’s tone has been cautious but not at all alarmist.

“While serious short-term health effects are considered unlikely, potential medium- and long-term effects through contamination from heavy metals (for example entering the food chain) can only be assessed as more information becomes available,” the agency said. The WHO added that the risk of contamination from dust spreading to neighbouring countries from drying sludge was considered “negligible”. [AFP]

Officials have been terrified that another part of the waste reservoir near the alumina plant may give way, and have been hastily constructing an emergency dam to hold back any potential new flood. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government has taken over the alumina plant, and the police have arrested the company’s CEO, Zoltan Bakonyi, on charges of public endangerment and harming the environment.

Related Content:
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80beats: Toxic Sludge Floods Hungarian Countryside, Threatens the Danube River
DISCOVER: Beautiful Pools of Pollution
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • Paul

    Strongly alkaline materials are potentially quite useful, since they will spontaneously react with CO2 to form carbonates. You’d think they would have proposed bubbling someone’s stack gases through that lake to sequester CO2 and lower its pH.

  • Georg

    Remember the tales (lies) “Greenpeace” told about Brent Spar?
    They know the mechanisms of press and silliness of journalists.
    That is all.
    Consciousness? Not really! They lie for a good purpose.

  • Ryan

    Despite the attempt to pin all of this on capitalism and industry, most likely these dangerous waste management practices were left over from an earlier time.

  • Albert Bakker

    2# Non sequitur.

    You actually have to explain as to why you think the levels of As (110 mg/kg dry), Hg (1,3 mg/kg dry) and Cr (660 mg/kg dry) are not as high as Greenpeace found in their samples. I think you’re going to take a pretty lonely position.

    Greenpeace’s speculation that other waste(s) may have been mixed with the sludge to explain the improbable high levels of these particular parameters (in particular As) seems to me not that far fetched. In fact it is not exactly unheard of even in European countries where environmental consciousness is in entirely different universe from Hungary and regulations are much more strict.

  • http://www.minneapolishouses.org Micheal Little

    “Schuster says that Greenpeace’s figures suggest that the drinking water supplies of at least 100,000 people could be affected by potentially toxic levels, including inhabitants of the city of Györ downstream of the contaminated rivers. Exactly how fast and far the contamination will spread depends on the permeability of local soils — which scientists have not yet assessed.” From Nature news too – That is alot of people but I am not sure sure that it is as significant as people think.

  • Georg

    You actually have to explain as to why you think the levels of As (110 mg/kg dry), Hg (1,3 mg/kg dry) and Cr (660 mg/kg dry)
    No Bakker,
    I havn’t. First that figures need to be proven by a really
    neutral lab.


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