”Heavy metals bioaccumulate throughout the food chain”
Swedwatch interview with Flaviano Bianchini, the director of Source International. The NGO Source International provides local communits with scientific studies and analysed air and water samples around Firestone Liberia´s rubber processing plant as part of the Swedwatch report Murky Waters - Environmental and human rights impacts of natural rubber processing in Liberia. The interview was carried out in February 2021.
Can you briefly describe how the water and air sample analysis conducted and how accurate it is?
All the analysis we performed were made according to international standards. The methodology chapter of the study lists the exact methodology for each water analysis and all of them are widely recognized by the most important international authorities (mostly US EPA and WHO). For the dust analysis we used an instrument called Aeroqual 500S which is also used by the US EPA as a portable instrument to measure PM10 and PM2.5.
Flaviano Bianchini, director of Source International
Among the substances/chemicals you detected in the wetlands and waterways surrounding the Firestone factory, which two or three did you find the most alarming in terms of health risks to the local community?
It is very difficult and somehow non-scientific to do a ranking of the most dangerous ones. Each one affects the environment and human health in a different way. Heavy metals are particularly dangerous for their residuality. They will never disappear from the environment and they bio-accumulate throughout the food chain up to humans. Some of them are cancerogenic and mutagenic and in general they pose a big threat to environment and health.
Phosphorus and Nitrogen are the main responsible for eutrophication: a phenomena widely present in the Farmington area and responsible for the ecological poverty of the river and for the die-offs of fishes that widely affects the protein intake of local population.
PM10 and PM2.5 are over the limit near the factory. According to WHO these particulates are among the most dangerous pollutant in the world, widely present in urban and industrial areas and responsible for millions of death every year. However, the area of study is a remote and agricultural one and the presence of such pollutants is likely due to Firestone’s facilities.
As I said it is difficult to do a ranking but the combination of all of these is a very high risk to human health in the area. People in the Farmington basin are suffering from shortage of protein (due to eutrophication caused by phosphorus and nitrogen), heavy metal intake and they are breathing high level of particulate matter. All of these together put in serious danger their health.
What substances/chemicals did you find to be far above internationally acceptable levels?
In the wetland, just after Firestone wastewater discharge, Aluminium, Manganese, Copper and Iron are all above the limit. Same for phosphates and total phosphorus and also nitrogen. In the same point also the Chemical and the Biological Demand of Oxygen are both above the limit. As far as we move away from the wetland the concentration of all these elements decrease but most of them remains above the limit along all the Yur-Chu Creek.
PM10 and PM2.5 are above the limit in Owensgrove, just in front of the Firestone factory.
What impact do they tend to have on the local environment and what did you observe?
As mentioned before heavy metals bioaccumulate throughout the food chain and finally they reach human been. Phosphate and nitrogen are responsible for eutrophication of water which is responsible for the reduction of oxygen in the water and it directly affects plants and fishes in the rivers.
What kind of health problems are they known to cause?
The uptake of aluminium can take place through food, through breathing and by skin contact. Long lasting uptakes of significant concentrations of aluminium can lead to serious health effects, such as: damage to the central nervous system, dementia, loss of memory, listlessness, severe trembling.
People that work in factories where aluminium is applied during production processes may endure lung problems when they breathe in aluminium dust. Aluminium can cause problems for kidney patients when it enters the body during kidney dialyses.
Manganese is one out of three toxic essential trace elements, which means that it is not only necessary for humans to survive, but it is also toxic when too high concentrations are present in a human body.
Manganese effects occur mainly in the respiratory tract and in the brains. Symptoms of manganese poisoning are hallucinations, forgetfulness and nerve damage. Manganese can also cause Parkinson, lung embolism and bronchitis. When men are exposed to manganese for a longer period of time they may become impotent. A syndrome that is caused by manganese has symptoms such as schizophrenia, dullness, weak muscles, headaches and insomnia.
Chronic Manganese poisoning may result from prolonged inhalation of dust and fume. The central nervous system is the chief site of damage from the disease, which may result in permanent disability. Symptoms include languor, sleepiness, weakness, emotional disturbances, spastic gait, recurring leg cramps, and paralysis. Manganese compounds are experimental equivocal tumorigenic agents.
Long-term exposure to copper can cause irritation of the nose, mouth and eyes and it causes headaches, stomach-aches, dizziness, vomiting and diarrhoea. Intentionally high uptakes of copper may cause liver and kidney damage and even death. Whether copper is carcinogenic has not been determined yet. There are scientific articles that indicate a link between long-term exposure to high concentrations of copper and a decline in intelligence with young adolescents. Whether this should be of concern is a topic for further investigation.
Chronic copper poisoning results in Wilson’s Disease, characterized by a hepatic cirrhosis, brain damage, demyelization, renal disease, and copper deposition in the cornea.
Too much phosphate can cause health problems, such as kidney damage and osteoporosis. Phosphate shortages can also occur. These are caused by extensive use of medicine. Too little phosphate can cause health problems.
Are the substances/chemicals common biproducts from natural rubber processing?
They are all substances that can be released from natural rubber processes if not properly managed.
Did you find evidence to suggest that Firestone’s plant may be polluting the local environment? If so, what?
We found heavy metals and phosphates in the wetland near their water dumping. Those elements (especially the heavy metals) are very unlikely to be naturally present in the water. Furthermore, they are not present in the other points along the Farmington river basin, suggesting that they are not naturally occurring in the area. Therefore, all the elements point towards Firestone’s plant.
As for dust emission PM10 and PM2.5 are much higher close to the factory then far from it. The area is a rural and remote area and therefore it is unlikely that there are other sources of dust emission.
Could there be other potential polluters in the area, like farms or other industries, contributing to the contamination?
Firestone is the only big industry in the area. The type of pollution (especially phosphate and nitrogen) that we encountered can also be related to big scale farming; but that one is also carried out by Firestone.
What action should Firestone Liberia take to ensure that it does not release harmful effluents?
They should improve their water treatment plant and install proper filters for their fumes.