Health

The people who can't eat their own veggies

Sipho Kings

Riverlea, in southwestern Johannesburg probably requires a major intervention to reduce the level of lead exposure.

Community leader Ruweida Mills says that the Riverlea community hasn’t been given any information on lead poisoning other than that they shouldn’t eat vegetables grown in the area.  (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Riverlea sits in a valley between a river and train tracks in southwestern Johannesburg. Mine dumps block out the horizon and it feels claustrophobic. Soccer City is 3km away and its shiny façade is in sharp contrast to the sewage water running down the muddy streets of the 50-year-old mainly coloured community.

Dr Angela Mathee from the Medical Research Council's environmental health research unit has done work in the community and said lead poisoning is a serious problem. "You really see it in the vegetable gardens there, where there are elevated levels of lead in the soil." These then go into the food chain. And because of large-scale unemployment, vegetable gardens are often the only source of healthy food, she said.

Locals said the lead comes from the mine tailings dumps that surround the community.

Mathee's work focused on school children who were not performing well and had high levels of lead in their blood. She tried to isolate what the causes could be. In one case she found a father who was using a soldering iron to fix radios and televisions in his one-roomed house. His children were sleeping on the floor. During her conversation with him, he said: "Please, please don't tell me what I do for a living is harming my children."

But the community have little knowledge of the problems that come with lead poisoning.

Universal testing
Their biggest concerns are more apparent ailments, such as asthma and tuberculosis.

Ruweida Mills, a community leader, said they had been told not to eat locally grown vegetables because they were not healthy, but she didn't know anything else.

Granwell Njars has a small vegetable patch, but he was not using the vegetables because he had been told the soil made them unhealthy. "And when the plants do grow they either have no fruit, or look bad," he said.

Riverlea probably requires a major intervention to reduce the level of lead exposure. But the scope of the problem and the amount of money it would take to improve conditions are not known, because much-needed data does not exist. The answer, Mathee said, is universal testing.

"What I would like to see is that, just as every child is vaccinated, every child is given at least one blood-lead test by the time they go to school."

South Africa may need a comprehensive strategy on lead, Mathee said, but that is "pie in the sky" stuff.


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