29 May 2005, Sunday Times South Africa

Bayer/Lanxess: Suburb hit by cancer scare

DURBAN city officials have discovered a cancer-causing chemical beneath suburban homes, sparking extensive testing to determine the effects. Evidence of the chemical hexavalent chromium, or Chrome 6 - notorious thanks to the movie Erin Brockovich - has been found in the groundwater in Merebank at levels 4000 times above accepted guidelines.

Chrome 6 is a carcinogen that enters the body by inhalation, ingestion or through the eyes or skin. It can lead to lung cancer, liver and kidney damage and skin ulcers. Lanxess, a spin-off company of the German multinational Bayer, that owns the plant blamed for the contamination in Merebank, south Durban, faces massive clean-up costs. And the bill could escalate in the form of lawsuits if medical tests due to be carried out by the city reveal that residents have developed illnesses.

Parallels have been drawn with the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, which brought the horrors of the substance to the screen. The true-life drama depicted the biggest civil damages award in US history - $333-million - won by more than 600 residents of the Californian town of Hinkley, who suffered exposure to the chemical for decades. People there died and suffered from cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Now Durban authorities are desperate to avoid the same outcome. "We don't want to see the effects of this contamination when people are dead or get cancer," said Selva Mudaly of eThekwini Health Department, explaining its decision to order the health tests. According to the city's "polluter must pay" principle, Lanxess will have to foot the bill for the tests, which Mudaly said would cost up to R25000 a person.

In a statement, Lanxess said it was unaware of the council's decision to test residents, but maintained the contamination was not hazardous "as long as residents do not come into direct contact with the contaminated water".

In March last year, municipal workers repairing water pipes outside the Lanxess factory found a pool of yellowish water 1.5m below ground. An analysis revealed the water to be contaminated with Chrome 6. Since then, about 200 boreholes have been sunk to map the contamination. City health official Raj Hooblal said the affected area mapped so far covers 33 homes in an area of 9500m², including parts of Clairwood Racecourse.

As a result of the scare, Hooblal said, the council had taken the precaution of replacing the 40-year-old asbestos water piping in the neighbourhood. Clean-up work is expected to begin next January.

Bayer, which bought the plant in 1968, stopped producing Chrome 6 in 1991. But according to a draft report compiled for the city, several chromium dump sites existed in Durban's southern basin from 1947.

Anil Ramlukan, whose home is 50m from the initial excavation site, said he and his family were at their wits' end. "We are living on borrowed time. That's how I look at it. We just don't know if we've been affected," said Ramlukan. His neighbour, Babs Govender, was equally concerned: "We are worried ... we don't know if the chrome went into our drinking water."

But Dr Willie van Niekerk, a toxicologist who took samples on site for the company, has played down the alarm. He admitted the concentration of Chrome 6 in the water was "high", but said the risk of harm was low because no one had come into contact with it. "There is no reason for people to be scared at the moment," he said.

Samples tested by the Durban Institute of Technology have revealed some levels 4000 times above the recommended limit. One reading was almost 100000 times too high. Professor Faizal Bux of the institute's department of chemistry said the readings were "unacceptable". "The amounts far surpass the norms ... There could be serious health implications for residents," he said.

Stopping short of accepting full responsibility, Lanxess said contamination had been documented before Bayer became involved in the site. Investigations would reveal the source, Lanxess said, and until then the company would subscribe to the chemical industry's social responsibility programme.

The Mercury, June 03, 2005

Pipelines to be replaced in polluted area

by Tony Carnie

Drinking water pipelines in Merebank, Durban, are being replaced in a residential area which has been heavily polluted by an underground leak of highly toxic hexavalent chromium.

The replacement of domestic water pipelines by the eThekwini municipality follows mounting concern among residents that the city and German multinational Bayer/Lanxess have kept them in the dark about the full risks to their health. This followed the discovery of extensive chemical contamination of soil and groundwater around the Bayer group factory in Tomango Road.

Soil and groundwater is polluted underneath 34 houses around Tomango, Chittagong, Alipore, Barrackpur and Chenab roads.

The hexavalent form of chromium in Merebank - which featured in the film Erin Brockovich - is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a group-one carcinogen, based on studies of factory workers who breathed chrome dust.

But Bayer/Lanxess says there is no risk of residents developing cancer unless they breathe chrome-contaminated dust.

The eThekwini health department and the company deny there is any link between the pipe-replacement scheme and the chrome pollution. Health department spokesperson Selva Mudaly insisted that the pipeline work - which began in January - was budgeted for long before pollution was detected.

Mudaly and Lanxess spokesperson Margaret Meyer both said that tap water samples taken last year showed no signs of hexavalent chrome contamination.

However, the minutes of a city task-team meeting suggest that the pipe replacement was accelerated as a "precautionary measure".

Mudaly did confirm that the city wanted to collect blood and other samples from residents.

In November last year, when Lanxess announced the discovery of the hexavalent chrome pollution, the company said there was no risk to residents living above the polluted groundwater and soil, as long as they did not drink borehole water or dig in their gardens to the depth of the water table.

At the time, the company assured residents that, even if buried water pipes were old and cracked, the high-pressure supply system would not allow any chrome to enter drinking water.

But Desmond D'Sa, a South Durban Community Environmental Alliance spokesperson, said there was a perception in the community that the city was covering up information on the health risks of the pollution.

Llwellyn Leonard, of pollution watchdog groundWork, said Bayer/Lanxess had repeatedly refused to respond to questions submitted in November.

"The Green Scorpions need to start a thorough investigation... and if the company refuses to turn over all the relevant information, the investigators should go to Bayer offices... to search and seize documents in the same way documents were seized from Schabir Shaik's offices," he said.