A slightly creepy feeling overwhelms me as we drive away after spending a morning in Snake Park, Soweto. My teeth feel slightly gritty and as I lick away the tiny particles of sand, I remember: this is no ordinary sand. The dust that has taken the shine out of our hair might be contaminated and so too the dust that is in our nostrils and lungs.
It blows in from a mine dump that looms behind Block One, Snake Park, across a road and over perhaps as much as a kilometre of veld. And it is probably contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive material.
The veld is dotted with people: men, women and a teenage girl, all wielding worn and hard-used implements – spades, forks, hand-held trowels. The rainy season is well under way and Philda Mbatha, Vivian Duda and her daughter, Zintle, are busy turning the soil to plant a new crop of mealies, spinach and onions. When they see the visitors toting a camera and notebooks, white-haired Mandla Nyawuza, Mbongiseni Mhlongo, Zwelakhe Dlamini, Clarance Similane and Mavis Sibaya leave their squared-off plots to join the conversation.
They know full well that the dust from the mine dump affects their health. "It makes your skin very itchy," said Sibaya.
"Sometimes the rash turns into sores," said Mbatha, and Sibaya added: "The children cough badly." Similane and Duda both sport slightly swollen eyes.
Sibaya bends over to point out the suspected culprit. There's a creamy overlay on top of the red, iron-rich Highveld soil. It is the exact shade of the dump behind their backs, a huge monolith that seems to glow in the morning sun.
There has been a lot of media coverage of Johannesburg's acid mine water drainage crisis – the vision of toxic liquid bubbling up from beneath Gold Reef City has a touch of Hollywood about it. But much less has been said about a century-old problem that's also reaching crisis proportions: the toxic dust that spirals off mine dumps and affects the health of communities nearby.
It's not easy to do epidemiological studies to pin down the impact of a toxic substance that can drift on the wind (some activists will tell you that traces of South Africa's West Rand mine dust have been found as far afield as Tasmania). In addition, although the dust problem has grown exponentially in the past two decades, it's too early to tell whether we have a cancer epidemic on our hands – and that's just one of the deadly possibilities.
Dust has been an issue across the Witwatersrand since before World War I. By 1910, Johannesburg had grown from a mining camp into a bustling town and, as suburbs inched closer to the nascent mine dumps, residents began to feel the impact of the waste deposited on the surface.
In his 2012 paper "A History of Mine Wastes Rehabilitation Techniques in South Africa", Markus Reichardt, a PhD candidate in the University of the Witwatersrand's botany department, wrote: "The most immediate of these impacts was dust pollution off the mine dumps, and while the details of engagement between communities, local authorities and the mining companies do not appear to have been recorded … they nevertheless must have taken place on a sufficiently large scale for individual mining companies to begin experimenting [with] various forms of dust suppression."
South Africa was the first country to legislate the issue, according to Malcolm J McPherson in "The Hazardous Nature of Dusts": "The first legislation for mine dust appears to have been formulated in 1912, when the Union of South Africa introduced laws governing working conditions in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand."
Various efforts were made to contain dust: spraying dumps with sludge and sealing or vegetating them. Sealing and spraying were of little help; vegetation proved more useful, but given the "dead" soil it had to grow on, it needed constant attention. And vegetation maintenance dropped down the list of priorities just as the need for containment kicked up in urgency.
Dust storm grows
In the final decades of the 20th century, the dust problem became much worse. In the 1980s it became economically and practically feasible to remine tailings for their residual gold, uranium and sulphuric acid. Dumps that had never been adequately contained in the first place began to be broken down. Taking the N1 south towards Bloemfontein, of the massifs – which used to form canyon walls on either side of the freeway – now look like the nibbled remnants of a birthday cake. Much of the surface stability of these dumps was lost and dust became a very real health risk for residents close to the dumps.
The West Rand district municipality reported in 2009 that "the number of people reporting to the health facilities … with respiratory illnesses is exceptionally high. Dust from the mine dumps, especially during windy days, is irritating and is a health hazard."
The level of dust reaching nearby residential areas has made the health risks apparent. Symptoms surface in the eyes and the respiratory tract and one can find sufferers on every corner. Jabulila Nhlabathi from Snake Park shows me her son's medical records: the worst affected of four children, he has had to have a steroid injection to reduce the swelling and inflammation in his eyes. Judging by their symptoms, it seems her other three children will need the same treatment soon.
Tiny Dlamini, a Snake Park resident and activist involved in the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network, pulls out a newspaper report that quotes a mine official playing down the dust issue. "What is that all about?" she asked with a throaty, cynical laugh.
In summer the dust is partially suppressed by the rains, but at the arid end of winter it can interfere with one's vision. "It blows in so thick that sometimes you can't see; it's like a cloud," she said. "Not long ago, a child was knocked down here because the driver didn't see him thanks to the dust."
Stella Adams, a resident of Diepkloof, has lived less than a kilometre from a large dump for more than 35 years. But when it was still being sprayed and vegetation cover was being maintained, the dump was not as dusty as it is now. Recently she has become concerned about what the dust could be doing to her and her grandchildren. "How do I know what's going on inside my body, or theirs?" she said. "My mum died of asthma; my sister died of lung cancer – but of course, the doctor blamed it on her occupational environment."
What's the harm?
It is the problem residents face when seeking attention for the health risks they face: it's not easy to assess how much health damage the mine dust is causing. There is a fair amount of research linking dust from coal and other mines to health problems, and exposure to ordinary dust alone – such as one might experience in a township without tarred roads – has proven impacts on health. But because South Africa's ores are uraniferous, tailings often contain high levels of uranium and radionuclides, those nasty little atoms with unstable nuclei that cause radioactive contamination. So the Witwatersrand's dust is potentially both chemically and radioactively toxic, but there's less available research about dust from tailings with a recipe like ours.
Environmental lobbyist Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, recently noted the absence of reliable statistics on disease and death caused by dust pollution in South Africa. It was almost impossible, she said, to find comprehensive data that directly links certain health problems with dust from specific sources and activities such as mining.
About 1.6-million residents of informal settlements close to or even right on top of Witwatersrand mine residue areas run a high risk of dust contamination; poorer formal townships downwind of the tailings or, like Riverlea, close to a dump that is being remined, are also imperilled.
But they may not be the only people affected by the dust. In the windy season, July to August, the very fine dust resulting from new processes is blown high and wide and logic dictates that the resulting symptoms that afflict the eyes, nose, throat and lungs could also be affecting residents of more well-off suburbs in the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area. One doctor, who has seen a quantum leap in such conditions in his patients, suggests it would be worth investigating possible links.
As hyperfine milling processes are adopted, the measured quantity of inhalable material has jumped from 5% to 26%, as a 2010 study that measured dust exposure in Soweto noted. "Occupational health standards for quartz exposure [linked to silicosis deaths in mine workers] were exceeded in this residential environment during this [dust storm]." The study added that statistical analysis of long-term weather data had indicated that wind conditions would exceed thresholds for dust generation and trigger environmental dust episodes for about 1 150 hours a year.
The result? In northeastern Soweto, residents face the equivalent of 106 eight-hour shifts a year in a workplace that would expose them to this type of dust – but without the protective gear that's mandatory on mines and in industry.
Concentrations of radium
The lungs are a ready pathway for pollutants to enter the body. They do have defence mechanisms, but these may not be tough enough to repel toxic or carcinogenic agents. Furthermore, as McPherson observes in his study of hazardous dust, "after years of exposure to unnaturally high concentrations of dust, 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".
Liefferink's federation, commenting on the West Rand district municipality's planned inventory of air emissions earlier this year, said the chemical toxicity of uranium could result in kidney damage, genetic mutations and developmental defects in children. "We know without a doubt that radon, which arises from uranium, causes lung cancer. And exposure to the dust will entail some exposure to radon. Radium, which also arises from uranium, is a carcinogen and any dust from uranium ore tailings would contain radium as well."
It's an ominous list of possibilities that includes the biggie with a long lead time, cancer. And the stuff can hang around in the lungs for years without dissolving, resulting in chronic radioactivity, according to the federation. Add other modes of exposure – such as contaminated water for washing, drinking or crop irrigation – to this airborne dust, inhaled day in and day out, and an unacceptable multiplication of risk results.
Those mealies and onions that Snake Park residents are planting to feed their families could open up another pathway to dangerous substances. This is borne out by research conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency a few years ago, which found concentrations of radium in cereals that had been grown in tailings-contaminated soils.
Asked how they would suggest solving the dust problem, Mandla Nyawuza voiced the Snake Park farmers' response in one word: "Destroy." It is clear that they want the dumps gone, out of their lives.
Dr Anthony Turton, environmental adviser, speaker and author, is working on a final closure strategy with the owners of the so-called Randfontein cluster of tailings disposal dumps. This would see all the dumps they own being reprocessed and the gold removed. Where possible, uranium would also be removed and the depleted tailings placed in a large consolidated "superdump" that is engineered according to 21st-century standards.
Turton has a suggestion about how to put the superdump to good use: "This final placement will mean that genuine rehabilitation can be considered and one option is to turn the new superdump into a wind farm to generate green electricity. This is at a prefeasibility study phase, so is nothing more than an idea on paper at this stage."
It's an appealing idea, but because the removal of so many dumps will send even more dust into the air, the people of Gauteng need scientists and authorities to work on other effective short-term measures as well to ameliorate impacts that are already damaging their health and quality of life – and possibly even shortening their lifespans.
Scale of the problem
According to the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Witwatersrand is the world’s largest gold and uranium mining basin with the extraction, from more than 120 mines, of 43 500 tonnes of gold in one century and 73000 tonnes of uranium between 1953 and 1995. The basin covers 1600 km2, and has left 400 km2 of mine tailings dams and six billion tonnes of pyrite tailings containing 450 000 tonnes of uranium.