some two decades ago, South Africa's powerful asbestos mining companies closed shop. Most of them left open waste dumps of the deadly fibre to be spread by wind and water. Now, the University of Potchefstroom's Research Institute of Reclamation Ecology (rire) has been handed over the task of rehabilitating many of the dumps to stop asbestos pollution. rire has tackled 16 dump sites in Mpumalanga, 92 in Northern Province, and 82 in northern Cape Province. But there are several dumps still lying open to the winds, rains and rivers.
rire conducted research on the prevailing average wind speeds. The results show that people in northwestern Cape Province may be exposed to unsafe levels of airborne asbestos particles 106 km downwind of the dumps. In the Northern Province, strong winds can carry fibre particles to towns as far as 396 km from the dump.
Rivers are also getting polluted. "I cannot think of any dump that is not in the lowest portion of a water course,' said Johann Booysen, director of rire . "The miners did not want this waste and they knew that it would wash away,' he says. "In the Northern Province, when it rains, a lot of asbestos is washed into the rivers, water from which is used for washing and cooking. Also, the asbestos particles can become airborne and pose an additional health risk,' he adds.
Thomas Baloyi is a terrain manager for rire . He started working in 1949 as a driver on Bewaarskloof mine in the Northern Province