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Kliptown residents say they found mercury in water after system upgrade, COJ conducting tests

Irene Frederick filling up the kettle as she recalls the story of how her daughter found the mercury. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Soweto neighbourhood finally gets attention from the City of Johannesburg’s environmental health division after residents discover what appears to be mercury in the water.

On 18 November, Cavlyn Fredericks, who has lived in Kliptown all her life, found mercury in her kettle while she was filling it up with water from her kitchen tap.

“That day I was busy filling the kettle because my brother asked for water for his tea,” said Cavlyn.

“And then while doing so, I opened the lid and saw those three silver shiny things. I didn’t know at the time what it was, and then I asked my mama, what is this in the kettle?”

Irene Fredericks, Cavlyn’s mother recalled, “I was very inquisitive, so I took one out and I put it on my hand because I thought it was those small marbles, the silver ones. And I pressed on it and it was like multiplying in my hand. You know it squishes, it was very, very soft. It multiplies when you press on it. 

03/12/22021 The beads of metal the Frederick’s found in their kettle (deposited into a plastic jug), the day it was found, 18 November 2021. (Photo: Cavlyn Fredericks)

“And that’s when I said, no, no, this is not right.”

Cavlyn told her next-door neighbour, Grieta Thompson about her discovery and Thompson informed her that she had found the same thing in her bucket, which she uses to fetch water from their shared tap. Cavlyn said her kitchen tap and the outside tap are linked to the same pipe.

Cavlyn sent photos of the metal balls to the Greater Eldorado Park Community WhatsApp group, which includes ward councillors, asking for information about what she had found.

A number of people warned her it might be mercury, which is highly toxic.

“I got the message that it’s mercury. And then I also did some research on Google saying that mercury is poisonous, and we mustn’t boil the water.”

Cavlyn does not live near any mines and hadn’t done any plumbing, and because she found the metal balls on 18 November, she suspected that the cause of it must be linked to Rand Water scheduled maintenance of Johannesburg Water pipelines, which took place from 15 to 17 November.

“It was a big worry to find something like that in the water,” said Irene. “That’s why we started putting bleach in the water and boiling the water but it didn’t help.”

With little choice, the Fredericks continued to drink the tap water. 

After Cavlyn contacted Daily Maverick, a reporter visited the site on 30 November and collected a sample of what was thought to be mercury that the two neighbours had saved. At that stage only these two households reported finding mercury in the water.

The sample was taken to Modderfontein Laboratory Services where Dennis Gregory, managing director of analytical chemistry confirmed, after observing the sample, that it was mercury.

Professor Angela Mathee, head of the Medical Research Council’s Environment and Health Research Unit, warned that mercury is highly toxic and should not be touched.

“Mercury is hazardous to health, and is included in the WHO list of chemicals of public health concern,” said Mathee.

Read about Mercury and its impact on health from the WHO here.

Thompson holding the beads of metal thought to be mercury in her palm the day it was found, 18 November 2021. (Photo: Calvyn Fredericks)

As the use of mercury is restricted in South Africa, both Gregory and Mathee were stumped as to what the source could be.

The day after Cavlyn’s discovery, her two-year-old child got sick. Soon after, her six-year-old and then the entire household of seven people were experiencing stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, which lasted for two to three days. 

When asked if they visited their local clinic, Cavlyn and her mother laughed and said, “to the clinic it’s like…you must die first, and then they will help you”.

Irene said, “Honestly speaking, there’s no help at the clinic. And you can’t even go to the hospital because you have to have a letter from the clinic.”

MRC’s Mathee spoke to an environmental health practitioner who advised the clinic manager to write a referral, and after a  Daily Maverick reporter visited the Kliptown Clinic and asked for a letter of referral so the Frederick family could be sent to a hospital to be tested, that it appeared the clinic was taking them more seriously. 

More bits of what is thought to be mercury found in the kettle during the City of Johannesburg’s site inspection on 3 December, 2021. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Cavlyn’s eldest daughter said she experienced chest pains, and two people in the area, Titus Fredericks and Shiloh Wessie, developed bumps and rashes on their skin.

Grieta Thompson’s son, Anthony (14) said soon after drinking water on Thursday, 18 November he felt sick. “My stomach started cramping, I started feeling like I could throw up,” said Anthony, adding his symptoms lasted over a week. 

Another neighbour said she experienced back pain around this time and believed it was the water because she drinks a lot of water.

At least five households in the area that Cavlyn knows of reported having similar symptoms in the days following the Rand Water maintenance, and residents said they have never got sick from the water before. 

The cause of these symptoms, which are also common with E.coli exposure, is not clear at this stage. Officials from Johannesburg Health and Daily Maverick have drawn samples to test for E.coli.

Justice Mohale, Rand Water’s spokesperson told Daily Maverick that since the maintenance was completed between 15 and 17 November on Johannesburg Water pipelines, it is not his place to comment.

Johannesburg Water spokesperson Eleanor Mavimbela said: “I don’t need to comment as Nthatisi [City of Johannesburg spokesperson – see comment below] speaks on behalf of the city.”

A place side-lined all along

Cavlyn said she was worried about her kids’ health when she heard of the dangers of mercury. “I was worried, so I asked the group for help. But there wasn’t immediate help, even from my councillor,” she said.

Dwain Ponsonby, the newly-elected Patriotic Alliance councillor for Ward 17,  was part of  the community WhatsApp group, but after no response Cavlyn sent him a private message on 26 November asking for guidance about the issue and if they could have access to an alternative supply of water. 

Ponsonby didn’t open Cavlyn’s message until a Daily Maverick journalist reached out on 1 December, asking why he had failed to act on a complaint and call for assistance from a resident. Ponsonby is yet to respond to Daily Maverick but got back to Cavlyn that day asking her what was wrong with the water. 

When asked about her interactions with the councillor, Cavlyn said, “It was frustrating because he is our ward councillor and it’s like he doesn’t take the residents of Kliptown seriously.

Sewerage water has been running in the streets of Kliptown for over 3 months, despite residents reporting it. (Photo: Julia Evans)

“For me, councillors can do a better job, and let us know if we can drink the water,” said Irene. “It’s not good… our lives come first, our health comes first.”

“It is disappointing, it’s like they don’t care about Kliptown,” said Cavlyn.

This is not the first time the Fredericks have felt ignored by the government. Cavlyn and her family have lived in Kliptown their entire lives, and Cavlyn reflected that since Mandela was in exile, nothing much has changed.

Kliptown was formed in 1891 and is the oldest residential area of Soweto. It was a squatter camp in 1903 but today is a mixed-use district, made up of shacks, formal dwellings and RDP housing.

When she was growing up, Cavlyn said they used buckets to go to the bathroom and candles for light.

After democracy, they were provided with outdoor toilets, but there is no infrastructure to have proper indoor sanitation facilities. The area only received electricity last year.

Cavlyn said before the electricity arrived, they used gas stoves and lamps.

Cavlyn’s great uncle, Enoch Wilson, who was born in 1963 in this yard and has lived there ever since.

Enoch Wilson says that 5 to 7 families share these toilets and that they are not hygenic. (Photo: Julia Evans)Wilson said when he was growing up there were open spaces between the houses and surrounding farms. Now there are backyard shacks filling every yard, and since electricity was installed, more shacks have been built near the Fredericks home. 

Wilson said he joined a committee to help his community in 1998, and has since fought with the local government to receive better sanitation, infrastructure and electricity for his community.

“This place has been side-lined all along,” said Wilson.

City of Johannesburg launches investigation

After confirming it was mercury, the issue was reported to a senior environmental health practitioner in the City of Johannesburg on 1 December.

A potential cause of the symptoms of Fredericks and neighbours experienced could be due to E.coli or other pathogens in the water, so a sample of water was sent to a microbiologist for testing. (Photo: Julia Evans)

On Friday morning, 3 December, a team of environmental health practitioners visited the Fredericks home.

An operations manager spoke to Cavlyn and her neighbours, and Johannesburg Water laboratory managers took water samples.

More blobs of what appeared to be mercury were seen in the kettle.

City of Johannesburg spokesperson, Nthatisi Modingoane said, “At this moment we cannot confirm anything.  Environmental health inspectors have been dispatched to the area to take samples which will be tested at the lab. The results of which will inform the City’s interventions.”

The Johannesburg Water laboratory manager on site said he would be running several tests on the water, which include testing for mercury, E.coli and other pathogens.

CIty of Johannesburg Environmental health inspector during her visit to Kliptown on 3 December. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The operation manager has arranged for an alternative supply of water to be supplied for the Fredericks on Monday.

Irene was sitting on her porch playing with her grandchild when the investigation team arrived. She said this was the first time in her life the government had ever come to her home to address an issue.

When asked how she felt about that, Irene said, “I feel like I exist. Like I’m a human.” DM

 

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