Environment Forum

from For the Record:

Hungary drudges through this toxic spill

HUNGARY

I wish it were the awarding of its 14th Nobel Prize that is putting my country in the news these days.

Instead, Hungary is back on the world stage because of a disastrous chemical spill. An avalanche of a highly alkaline mud that could fill 440 Olympic-sized swimming pools has broken through the shoddy containment walls at an aluminum plant not far from the Lake Balaton region. As a result, nine people have died and 250 were injured. Wild and farm animals have perished, and lands and little summer gardens that were the villagers' food and staple for winter have been ravished.

The 16th century castle in Devecser has surely seen a lot but now looks over hundreds of homes doomed to demolition. Kolontar, the village right under the alumina pond has even been compared to Chernobyl, the infamous home of a nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

But a comparison of this sort only adds more damage to the grief: The red mud, as bad as it looks, is not highly radioactive, which was the case with Chernobyl. What makes the red sludge dangerous is alkali, which can dissolve skin as water dissolves soap. Eating up shoes and rubber boots, alkali left villagers with second- and third-degree burns.

Unfortunately, Alkali is all too familiar to Hungarians.

“Heartbroken maids would drink [alkali-rich] laundry detergent in the 19th century,” Dr. Zoltan Komaromi, secretary of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, said. “Alkali dissolves the esophagus immediately so drinking it used to be a popular way of committing suicide.”

from Photographers' Blog:

A toxic work environment

Bernadett Szabo spent eight days photographing the disaster that enveloped part of Western Hungary after a reservoir of red sludge, an alumina factory by-product, burst on October 4 and released one million cubic meters of highly toxic sludge that killed eight people, injured 120, and destroyed nearly 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) of land. Here’s her account of working in the field under the adverse conditions she found.

Photographer Bernadett Szabo works in the village of Devecser, 150 km (93 miles) west of Budapest, October, 2010.   REUTERS

This work required a whole lot more caution than normal when covering a different type of disaster story, like a flood for example. There’s water there, and mud, and you can sink and all, but that’s only water. This red sludge is toxic.

We knew it was alkaline, with a potent bite. We knew it was a lot more dense than regular silt, making moving around in it very tiring – and its toxicity meant no touching, so we could not hold onto anything for support. Falling over was not an option, because the toxic stuff could damage you to the point of visible wounds or cause damage to your eyes, and render your gear inoperable.

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