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.
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.
My hands were sore and dry and cracked open after a few days, even though I did not exactly touch the stuff all the time.
Wearing a mask was a health necessity, but it made work very difficult as your breath fogs up the eye piece. Wiping it was not an option, on account of your filthy hands.