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Independent researchers detect high levels of pollution around North Mara gold mine

by DAMAS MWITA This Day Tanzania
July 14th, 2009

INDEPENDENT experts have confirmed the presence of high levels of toxic chemicals in the area surrounding Barrick Gold Corp's North Mara gold mine in Tarime District, Mara Region.

A three-member panel of local researchers has established that there are significantly high levels of poisonous heavy metals and cyanide in the environment around the mine.

According to the researchers, levels of nickel in the area have risen 260 times, levels of lead are up times 168, and chromium levels have also multiplied by 14 compared to the last time tests were conducted in the area about seven years ago.

The researchers were Dr Mkabwa Manoko from the University of Dar es Salaam's department of botany, Manfred Bitala, and Charles Kweyunga.

"The various health effects associated with heavy metal poisoning include a wide range of carcinogenic effects such as skin, kidney, teratogenic effects; mutagenic effects; and brain damage," they said in their report unveiled in Dar es Salaam yesterday.

They said the symptoms displayed by some villagers living near the mine are consistent with poisoning from heavy metals.

The researchers stated that the levels of heavy metals and cyanide in areas surrounding the mine owned by Canada's mining giant Barrick Gold Corp are much higher than national and international standards.

The researchers found high levels of pollution in the soil and water samples near the mine.

"Some people in the area show various disease symptoms, such as skin diseases that can be linked to heavy metal pollution. However, a more thorough study is required for this to be confirmed," says part of their report.

"In fact, some (medical) conditions caused by these pollutants do not show immediate or observable symptoms. Lack of symptoms therefore does not mean absence of health problems," it adds.

The researchers recommended that an "intensive environmental audit" of the area be conducted involving local and international scientists from both Government and non-governmental organs

"Since the level of heavy metals, cyanide and soil and water pollution around the North Mara gold mine project are higher than permissible levels, thus (posing) a threat to the survival of organisms (animal and plant life), this audit will be to assess the impact of any such pollution on the ecosystem in the area," they said.

They warned that communities living around the mine are in danger of being exposed to hazardous chemicals from the Tigithe River and surrounding soil and vegetation.

"If these chemicals find their way into the human body through direct indigestion of contaminated food, drinking water, or air, their health problems become of major concern," explained Bitala, one of the researchers.

The researchers' report also highlights some possible effects of exposure to such heavy metals and toxic chemicals like cyanide, as being cancer, heart disease, genetic problems, loss of memory, respiratory complications, and reproduction organs.

It notes that health hazards from exposure to such pollution could persist for more than 2,000 years.

The independent study, commissioned by several religious groups based in Dar es Salaam, was carried out in Kwimanga, Kwinyunyi, and Nyabigena Villages around River Tigithe in Tarime District, Mara Region.

As part of the study, samples of water and soil sediments were collected and analysed for four heavy metals - nickel, cadmium, lead and chromium - using atomic absorption spectrometer (AAS), while cyanide was analysed using pyridine and levels of acid.

Another researcher, Dr Manoko, criticised a previous report produced by the North Mara mine management in May this year, which claimed that the water in the Tigithe River was safe.

He said it was not feasible to reach such a conclusion without testing the level of heavy metals and cyanide present in the water.

The director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) in Dar es Salaam, Francis Kiwanga, similarly criticised the Government for failing to take stern measures against the gold mine management for polluting the environment.

"There is a reluctance among senior Government officials to act immediately despite preliminary evidence showing that the mine has indeed polluted the environment," Kiwanga asserted.

Public pressure has been mounting on the Government to shut down operations at the North Mara gold mine pending an ongoing investigation into reports of potentially deadly health hazards caused by the mine.

The Minister of State in the Vice President's Office (Environment), Dr Batilda Buriani, has told THISDAY that samples from villagers reported to be already displaying symptoms of the pollution have been taken to the Government Chemist Laboratory Agency and health centres for analysis.

Results of the various tests being carried out are due out within a few days, Dr Buriani said.


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