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.
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