Tanzania: Growing Concern Persists Over Toxins

SAMPLES collected from Lake Rukwa show that there is a high presence of toxins (poisonous chemicals) that are coming from the mining activities in the area, a situation that is giving marine scientists sleepless nights.

The Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute Director General, Dr Benjamin Ngatunga told the 'Daily News on Saturday' in an exclusive interview that evidence showed an alarmingly high level of mercury and lead in the lake. "The samples we tested found that the chemicals were in the water, fish and sediments at levels much higher than the acceptable ones allowed by the World Health Organisation (WHO)," he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a daily permissible intake (DPI) level of 5 micrograms per kilogramme per day of lead for children. The US Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry has established a minimal risk level (MRL) for mercury of 2 micrograms per kilogramme per day for inorganic mercury and 0.12 for methyl mercury. Mercury occurs in a number of forms in the environment.

The most hazardous for children is methyl mercury, although inorganic mercury is also a potential concern. Methyl mercury, like lead, is toxic to the developing brain and high-dose exposures can result in a cerebral palsy-like syndrome, while even low dose exposures may cause subtle deficits in learning and memory. Dr Ngatunga said that they conducted a survey in 2010 in Chunya district in Mbeya region, on the banks of the lake when they visited the area and had already submitted the report to the government for action.

He said that he strongly believed that the situation was the same in other parts of the country where mining activities are taking place, adding that funding was needed to carry out in-depth researches in these areas. The Norwegian University of Life Sciences in cooperation with the University of Dar es Salaam in 2009 conducted a study in North Mara gold mine to trace metal concentrations in soil, sediments and waters.

The results showed high levels of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, chromium, nickel and zinc in the area and the environment had been seriously contaminated. "What is worrying is that apart from the fish in these water bodies that are consumed by people in surrounding areas, the water is being used for domestic purposes and risking the lives of thousands," he voiced. Dr Ngatunga called for joint inter- institution efforts to check this worrying situation. He said he was disappointed that many Tanzanians were least concerned about what they eat, adding that this trend could be the reason why getting solutions to many health problems people are suffering can't be got.

"One characteristic of us Tanzanians is that we are concerned over the most trivial issues but never about how safe are the contents of what we eat. It amuses me when you hear people complaining about the high standards required to export fish but never about what we buy for consumption," he said. Dr Ngatunga urged the public to be more concerned about the safety of what they are eating because a lot of toxins have long term effects and can't be seen immediately.

He said that he was a great believer of economic development of the country but he was totally against it being at the expense of the health of the people. The DG said that there was need to have sufficient funding to conduct extensive research on all inland water bodies. He said that if possible, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) should think of revising its research grant policy from concentrating on the production of fish for Kilimo Kwanza contribution to quality assessment of our water bodies and other environment issues.

COSTECH Director General, Dr Hassan Mshinda told the 'Daily News on Saturday' over a telephone interview that the issue isn't so much to do with funding but rather with the conducting of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Dr Mshinda said that it was mandatory for a company to conduct an EIA before they start operating and afterwards, such that analysis can be done by experts on the impact the activities being conducted affect both positively and negatively to the environment and eco- system of a certain locality.

The authority mandated to conduct environmental impact assessments is the National Environmental Management Council but efforts to get a response from the office of the Director of Environmental Compliance and Enforcement both by email and telephone proved futile.