South Africa

HEAVY METALS OP-ED

Gqeberha’s role as key port for export of manganese comes with high environmental and health costs

Gqeberha harbour exports the bulk of South Africa's manganese ore, with thousands of tons transported and stored within the city annually. (Photo: Flickr / Flowcomm)

Manganese has the same problem as most trace elements despite its many positive applications — higher dosages can cause health problems and environmental damage. And parts of Gqeberha are being smothered in manganese dust.

Manganese is one of the most abundant trace metals on earth and can be found in small quantities throughout nature, within the soil, waterways, and most plants. It exists mainly as an essential mineral (bonded to other elements like oxygen and carbon). It is an important nutrient in many food sources such as grains, vegetables, shellfish, cereals, teas, etc.

It is vital to human health in small doses and plays a role in supporting the nervous system, bone formation, blood clotting and healthy metabolic and reproductive functions. It also assists plants in photosynthesis and has a range of industrial purposes, being a key component in paints, glass, dry batteries, steel and other metal alloys. Manganese compounds (like potassium permanganate) are also used in water treatment and disinfectants.

But manganese has the same problem as most trace elements despite its many positive applications — higher dosages can cause health problems and environmental damage.

Mining and industrial activities involving manganese lead to the dispersion of the mineral through the air into open waterways and fertile soils. Free cations (positively charged metal particles: Mn+2) increase acidity levels in soil and water, creating difficult environments for plants and living creatures to grow. Soils become infertile and struggle to support the growth of new plants under these conditions, and heightened levels of the metal taken up by plants are toxic, causing them to weaken and eventually die.

In humans, manganese toxicity usually arises from exposure to mineral dust breathed in through the lungs, as only around 2-5% of all dietary manganese is absorbed when eaten in food. Infants are known to absorb a large proportion of trace metals through diet and are a vulnerable group to foods containing high metal levels.

Exposure to high levels of manganese can cause a range of health concerns, with the dust particles capable of causing lung damage, respiratory infections, and visual impairment. When absorbed, symptoms can range depending on the level and length of time of metal exposure, with the term “manganism” given to symptoms developed from extremely high exposure to the mineral, usually seen in adults as a result of occupation (mine and industrial workers). Manganese poisoning is known to cause nerve and muscle damage, recurring headaches, muscle weakness, and the development of mental conditions such as hallucinations, schizophrenia, and insomnia.

Serious cases of manganese poisoning primarily impact the nervous system of patients but have also been linked to serious conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

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Importance of manganese in South Africa

South Africa is the biggest exporter of manganese ore globally, with the mineral bringing in around 2.55% of all South African export revenue. In November 2021, this accumulated in a value of around R3.64-billion in profits.

Almost all manganese mining operations are in the Northern Cape, and the ore is transported by rail or road to the coast to be shipped to overseas buyers. As of 2021, the industry is estimated to employ around 13,290 South African workers, the majority of whom are miners.    

The largest manganese export harbours in South Africa are located in the Eastern Cape at the port of Ngqura and in the city of Gqeberha (previously known as Port Elizabeth). Currently, the Gqeberha harbour exports most of this, and thousands of tons of manganese ore are transported and stored within the city every year to meet the global demand. While this generates a sizable revenue for the city, the storage and transport of the mineral have led to several growing concerns over the 40 years in which the terminal has been operating.

Impact of manganese exports on Gqeberha

Like most cities within the Eastern Cape, Gqeberha has struggled to support the expansive growth of population and industrial activity over the past few decades. Lack of maintenance, poor foresight on the part of management, and the impact of environmental facts, such as the ongoing water crisis, has led to much of the city’s infrastructure falling into disrepair.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic additionally led to a decrease in economic growth, with many businesses halting production or shutting down altogether within the early stages of the national state of disaster being declared. Harbour activities naturally stalled in response, and there was an increase in export goods being stored for long periods in warehouses and storage facilities throughout the city.

The harbour’s manganese terminal could hold a bulk capacity of 350,000 tonnes, and quantities surpassing this were stored in warehouses located in Markman and Swartkops.

Even though exports have once again picked up, bulk stores of manganese ore are still being kept in these locations, and container trucks and hauliers are being used to transport the mineral down to the harbour.

Impact on roads and traffic control

A 2021 study performed from July to October by our team of consultants in the Markman area revealed an astonishing throughput of traffic caused by these transporters. The trucks were operating continuously for 24 hours a day throughout the week. Between July and October, an average of 400 trucks exited and entered the area over weekdays and around 200 trucks over weekends for both months. Recent reports have indicated that these numbers may have increased and that activity is known to more than double during periods when manganese shipments are occurring at the harbour terminal.

Continuous travel by vehicles impacts traffic flow in and out of Markman and Gqeberha and has contributed to the increasing decline in road quality throughout the metro.

The hauliers are estimated to carry over 40 tonnes of manganese ore per container, and the weight of these vehicles going back and forth along roads causes damage in the form of cracks, potholes, crumbling shoulders and kerbs, damage to structures and barriers, blockage of stormwater drains and poor drainage.

From observation, the manganese ore is often transported without sufficient coverage (tarpaulins), and fine dust is released directly into the air while the trucks carry it to and from the warehouses. Strong winds easily disperse this dust throughout surrounding areas, choking the air with thick clouds and making visibility difficult for motorists and pedestrians.  

Many of Markman’s most travelled streets, such as Chrysler and Buick Streets, have now become a hazard to navigate because of these conditions.

Environmental impact

The trucks alone have a heavy impact on the environment due to their high demand for fuel and production of automotive emissions. The damage they cause to stormwater drains also contributes to increased pollution of local waterways and flooding and irregular drainage of nearby areas. This results in soil and structural erosion.

Dispersed manganese dust and ore falling from trucks onto the roads and pavements increase the mineral concentration in the soil and nearby waterways. Long-term exposure creates adverse ecological conditions for the growth of plants and other living creatures that take up the mineral, and the quality of resources in these areas decreases. Animals in these areas may suffer from respiratory and visual issues, and the hides of farmed animals are contaminated with thick layers of dust. High manganese concentration in drinking water and food also impacts its taste.

Impact on health and safety

The conditions of the roads and surrounding environmental impact caused by both the trucks and manganese dust have generated a range of safety hazards faced by residents living close to the warehouse areas.

As discussed earlier, inhalation of manganese dust is associated with serious and lasting health concerns. Reports on the permissible exposure limits vary between different countries. Still, South African regulations mandate that workers who interact with the metal through occupation should not be exposed to a threshold value higher than 0.2mg/m³ over an eight-hour work shift. 

A 2020 article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reported on the impact manganese poisoning has had on mine workers in the Northern Cape (South Africa), highlighting the common development of Parkinson’s disease symptoms in long-term exposure.

While no official reports have been published on the impact the manganese dust has had on Gqeberha residents; numerous informal complaints have been brought up over the years by individuals who have experienced adverse effects as a direct result of the manganese pollution.

Residents have reported breathing difficulties, visual impairments, weakness and many other symptoms commonly associated with manganese poisoning.

A September and October 2021 study compared the level of dust stirred up by trucks moving through the Markman area with permissible levels indicated in SANS 1929:2005, a standard for air quality set out by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). Dust buckets were set up to collect airborne particles over 24 hours, and the quantity was examined compared to standard limits.

The dustfall limit indicated in SANS 1929 mandates that any quantity above 1,200mg/m³ in an industrial area (if consistent for two or more months) or above 600mg/m³ in residential areas would require investigation and immediate action for findings over 2,400mg/m³ per day.

The study results showed an average fall of 6,400mg/m³ per day in the Markman area, five times the acceptable amount for an industrial area.

Though known mainly for its industrial factories and warehouses, Markman also houses a large informal township. It is also near Motherwell, one of the biggest townships in Gqeberha. Residents in these areas are directly exposed to the massive quantities of dust stirred up by these trucks. The long-term adverse effects of this on their health and quality of life have not been investigated, and very little has been done to lessen the impact on their lives.

Economic impact

The impact of storage and export of manganese on Gqeberha’s economy is difficult to assess. On the one hand, the industry does provide a source of income to the city itself, but very little if any of this appears to be going back into creating sustainable infrastructure for the people who must deal with its consequences.

Roads remain in disrepair, air quality throughout the metro has diminished, and residents complain about dust settlement causing visual and sanitary concerns for properties. Oil tankers and ore dumps near the harbour are additionally accused of causing contamination to the bay and nearby beaches, threatening the ecosystem and decreasing overall tourism appeal for the city. Smaller businesses located in highly polluted areas like Markman are economically threatened as customers no longer want to source their products. The quality of consumable products in these areas is widely believed to be impacted by the manganese dust.

Despite all these concerns, almost no action has been taken to combat or lessen the manganese industry’s impact on the city. Environmental concerns and calls to action have been going out to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality since before 2012, yet little to no action has been taken. Yes, there have been a lot of talks, discussions and meetings, but there has not been any tangible action.

In February 2021, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane announced the removal of the manganese terminal by the end of the year, and yet the trucks continued to work day and night through into 2022.

The terminal is managed by the parastatal corporation Transnet, which leases the land from the NMM municipality. In May 2022, Transnet announced that the full removal of the manganese terminal to the port of Ngqura would only occur in 2027.

Residents were naturally outraged, and motions to undermine this decision are underway. New developments are being closely monitored.

What can be done?

If you live or work in an area with high exposure to manganese dust or are in an occupation where you are constantly exposed to it, remember to take measures to protect yourself. Wear a respirator (preferable) or face mask when you go into areas with high dust content and avoid directly breathing in the dust. Keep windows and openings closed as much as possible to prevent the dust from entering your home or workspace and regularly clean surfaces, hands, and food and bathe at least once a day.

If you experience an illness that you believe could be directly connected to manganese exposure, seek help from a local clinic or medical practitioner. Please don’t wait for worse symptoms to set it. Health institutions must start collecting data as soon as possible to determine the health impact on the city’s citizens. We must start understanding what health impact the manganese operations are having on the city’s residents and workers who work in areas where the manganese operators are.

Long-term change may seem difficult and unattainable at times, but it’s important not to give up and seek accountability for conditions which may be attributed to manganese air pollution.

In the case of Gqeberha, this has never been more true, and we can only hope that the affirmative action, resourcefulness and continued dedication of the community to change will result in an outcome that benefits all.

When one looks at the immense cost to public health, infrastructure, environmental management and environmental health in general, the manganese operations in their current design seem very difficult to justify. On behalf of its citizens, it is perhaps time for authorities to stop the culture of impunity and complete disregard of the country’s laws by the manganese operators.

Profits should never triumph over public health. In the end, the health impacts may be costlier in the long term. DM

Bianca Taylor and Mthokozisi Nkosi are with ASC Consultants, a food safety and public health consultancy based in Gqeberha.

 

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