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Taking a "Toxic tour"

By Ava Salitsky


Along the shore of the Indian Ocean south of Durban, there are miles of undeveloped sandy beach and steep, scrub-covered ridges, topped by brightly painted vacation houses. In the valley below, however, thousands of people are at risk of environmental poisoning.

Less than a mile from the beach are two huge oil refineries, the largest paper mill in South Africa and acres of oil and chemical storage tanks. These industries fill the air with acrid smoke that endangers all who live there.

A group of Simmons students took a "toxic tour" of Durban led by Bongani Mthembu, an air pollution inspector from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), and discovered the health concerns for the mostly poor Indian and "colored" residents of South Durban and the environment in which they live. The SDCEA works to educated them about the dangers and to advocate for change.

Most of the housing problems are from the apartheid era, during which where people lived was determined entirely by race. Apartheid had laws to separate them so there would be no mixing of races. This forced people of color--divided into three categories: Indian, colored {mixed race) and back--to live in the poorest rural areas and the worst urban neighborhoods, while whites got the best, cleanest places.

Today, about 52 percent of the community suffers from asthma, cancer, and leukemia because of these huge industries. Without a local treatment center for these conditions, many people remain untreated, dying from improper conditions and lack of medication.

On the tour we visited the Settlers School, a small elementary school that a small airplane had crashed into and that has been suffering the direct effects of extreme air pollution. The children are extremely sick when in school but once at home they feel better, says Nthembu.

Children often die in this area because the only hospital for leukemia is in Cape Town and many families cannot afford to move out of the area to get away from the pollution or to be nearer to health facilities.

Not only are the people here being hurt because of where they live; many who work in the large oil refineries are killed by harmful chemicals, while families are unaware of the reason, says Nthembu.

"People of the world need to come together, across every race, class, and gender to stop environmental pollution," he concludes.

Posted by South Africa Group on June 1, 2011 5:27 PM
Category: South Africa