Hungary drudges through this toxic spill

October 21, 2010


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.”

Beyond the obvious damages, however, not even experts of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences or the top eco-toxicologists of Europe who arrived in Hungary last week have been able to assess the long-term consequences from the sludge. For it is the first ecological disaster of its kind in the world. So are the methods with which Hungarians try to fight it.

They have dumped tons of clay and vinegar into rivers. They poured gypsum over the land. The neutralization of the alkalinity worked just in time to save the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, a main drinking water supply.

For now, the most urgent task is preventing the mud that covers an area twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park from drying into dust and being carried by the wind. When inhaled as dust, alkali is still a menace — it burns sensitive tissue in the nose, throat and lungs.

Residents are already allowed to return to the settlements, but hundreds of them decided to stay away from their homes for good. Who would blame them when no one is sure about the long–term effects of heavy metals in the mud and rumors spread about carcinogenic repercussions and even radiation.

“Continuous inhaling of toxic dust may result in an excessive metal load in the body which may damage the lungs and may cause tumors,” said Dr. Gabor Zacher, head of Toxicology at Péterfy Sándor hospital in Budapest. “We have only guesses at this point. The world, in four or five years time, will be able to learn from our example, but for now we cannot say anything unambiguously.”

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people in Ajka, the town closest to the alumina refinery have spoken about illnesses caused by inhaling its red dust decades before the accident.

“In my street, almost every house has had someone getting sick with cancer,” Ferenc Nemeth, a local of Ajka told Duna TV, a Hungarian public channel. “My father had lung cancer, my neighbor was operated with brain tumor and my other neighbor died from lung cancer. (…) We’re scared that this is going to continue,” he said.

If anyone could provide some advice it would be Jamaicans, one of the biggest alumina exporters in the world. “Each year, bauxite processing in Jamaica produces enough caustic mud to bury 700 football pitches and their goalpost,” wrote the New Scientist in 1986, the year when Jamaicans seriously started research ways to reduce the accumulation of red mud.

An obvious idea was to make bricks of it so they needed to test its toxicity. Dr. W.R. Pinnock, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies and an expert of red mud projects, found that a building made entirely of materials based on red mud, “wouldn’t be safe” for permanent living. But, sadly, Jamaicans know that there is no real “cleaning up” when it comes to waste material.

So Hungarian wit is most needed now to figure out what to do with our mud if we are to preserve the environment and ourselves.

The opinions expressed are Donath’s own.

Photo caption: A footprint is seen in the mud after red toxic sludge flooded the village of Devecser, 93 miles west of Budapest, October 11, 2010. A million cubic metres of red mud burst out of a sludge reservoir last Monday, flooding three local villages and fouling rivers including a tributary of the Danube. The town of Devecser, home to 5,400 people, is on alert should it need to be evacuated. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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