November 12, 2004, The Mercury (South Africa)

Fatal chemical found in Durban groundwater

A potentially fatal chrome powder has polluted groundwater under more than 40 houses in the Merebank residential area in south Durban

The eThekwini Municipality and the Bayer group issued press statements on Thursday night confirming that an unknown volume of hexavalent chromium - the cancer-causing chemical compound made famous in the Hollywood movie Erin Brokovich - had been found in groundwater outside the Bayer chemical factory in Tomango Road. Residents have been warned not to drink water from any boreholes which may have been sunk in the area.

City manager Michael Sutcliffe and Bayer/LanXess managing director Michael Krancher said the situation was not health-threatening and "does not constitute an emergency". Nevertheless, city health chief Umi Sankar said any resident who drank contaminated borehole water should see a doctor immediately.

The first signs of pollution came to light about six months ago during a "routine excavation" next to the Bayer factory. Council workers were said to be installing a new water meter, and asked Bayer to investigate further after "finding signs of contaminated groundwater". Since then several test boreholes had been sunk to determine the area of pollution.

Bayer, which took over the Merebank factory in 1974, said the company had stopped all production of hexavalent chromium (Chrome 6) in 1991. The pollution was thought to be the result of historical contamination from the factory at some stage before this date, but it was not clear how or when the toxic material got into the soil or groundwater. Asked why residents were only notified this week, Krancher said crucial information about the extent of the pollution only emerged about two weeks ago after test borehole results by geohydrological consultants Moore, Spence, Jones.

Bayer and LanXess, which now make trivalent chrome tanning salts and other chemicals at the Merebank site, said there was no danger of people coming into contact with the chemical unless they drank water from boreholes. The department of water affairs had told the company there were no registered boreholes in the area, but if residents knew of any they should notify the company and the city.

Krancher said tests had also been done to establish if there were traces of soluble chrome 6 in the soil or drinking water, but there was no evidence of this. Desmond D'sa, head of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, expressed concern about the risk of contamination via cracked underground municipal water pipes. However, both Sutcliffe and Krancher said tap water tests in recent weeks showed no evidence of this. Krancher said toxicology consultants Infotox had advised the company that the main cause for concern was via groundwater.

In the Erin Brokovich case, scores of residents of Hinkley in California sued the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for a record US$ 333-million as a result of health problems caused by hexavalent chrome pollution. Krancher said the two issues could not be compared, as the most damaging route of health damage was airborne exposure via the lungs. He said the public and Durban municipal authorities would be informed of the situation and findings of all probes under way. (by Tony Carnie)