Manganese health concerns for Lüderitz kids

11 January 2019 | Health

Over the past week alarmed Lüderitz parents and other residents have called for a local primary school that opened its doors this week to stay temporarily closed, until they can be assured their children are protected from potentially hazardous manganese dust from a nearby stockpile.

Residents have since December warned of the potential health and environmental hazards posed by manganese stockpiling at the town, which was halted abruptly last week by environmental officials until an investigation into the operation is concluded.

TradePort, the South African company that brought in the product, was ordered by environmental inspectors to rehabilitate the vacant property where the manganese was dumped in the open, and Namport gave the temporary green light to store the material in a warehouse at the port.

While most of the product was removed on Tuesday and taken to the port warehouse, during a much-criticised clean-up operation that many say was handled with lack of due safety measures, residents maintain that the remaining dust at the site continues to pose a health risk, especially to children at the Helen van Rhijn Primary School, located directly downwind, and to residents in nearby suburbs.

On Tuesday observers also claimed the clean-up operation lacked protection for workers and that the area was left insufficiently scrubbed of all traces of the hazardous material. On Monday a meeting which involved members of the school board addressed the issue and the school's principal agreed to investigate further. However, by yesterday, no feedback had been provided yet, a member of the board confirmed, as the school management is still looking into the matter.



Stay inside

Chantelle Murtz, whose children attend Helen van Rhijn, says she has grave concerns for their health and has kept them indoors when the notorious Lüderitz winds pick up, after the manganese was dumped.





“We are very careful about allowing the children to play outside when the wind blows. We have strong winds - this week they reached around 60 knots per hour - and our suburb is located directly behind that stockpile (now removed), and the trucks loaded with manganese passed close by. I feel as parents we should be aware of the health risks.”

Heidri-Ann van Vuuren said her eldest child, a learner at the school, is asthmatic and the stockpile also worried her.

“The school is very close to that dumpsite. The dust has been blown across the entire town. We first spotted the trucks offloading manganese at the start of the year, and then heard about the health hazards. So when the kids are home, although it's uncomfortable for them, I cannot allow them to play outside. It's too big a risk.”

Both parents said it was a concern that the school had opened despite the potential risks, but added that many parents were not aware of the dangers of manganese dust exposure.

Rolandi van Wyk, another parent, said: “I have a big problem with the manganese dust. My child is a Grade 0 pupil. Taking her to school, knowing of the dangers the dust can cause, has been a real concern.”

She added that it “makes no sense at all” that “our local businesses and council want to subject us and our children to this”.

“They will be our future community leaders.”

She has joined countless Lüderitz residents to protest the lack of safety protocols around the manganese at the dumping site, and said she will stand with others to fight to “ensure a healthy and safe future for not only my child, but all our children”.



Bad handling

Photographs and video recordings made by concerned community members on Tuesday during the clean-up operation raised several concerns.

“Not one of the workers wore any safety clothing, not even masks,” Reginald Hercules said.

He said only after his presence was observed, and local environmental and port inspectors arrived, as well as police officers, the workers were issued white overalls and masks.

The manganese, loaded onto open trucks, was transported without sufficiently protective covering through the town, residents said on Tuesday. It was covered with shade nets taken from a makeshift fence erected at the site.

“Can you imagine how many people have been exposed in this town because of this reckless operation which has taken place here,” Hercules remarked.

He said he was especially concerned about the potential short- and long-term impact on the health of vulnerable residents, including children, the elderly and sick.

Online, a resident underlined that manganese dust was present in “sizable quantity” on Tuesday and other days, and was easily carried to the school and other areas by the south-wind.

He added that run-off water from the spraying of the manganese pile was allowed to run out of the property, carrying manganese dust and potentially polluting the environment.

Acting Lüderitz town council CEO Otto Shipanga said yesterday the municipality could not address the issue until the environmental commissioner's investigation is concluded.

He added that “no investments must come at the expense of the health and safety of the community”.

The principal of Helen van Rhijn, the environment ministry or the contractors tasked with the clean-up operation could not be reached for comment yesterday.

JANA-MARI SMITH