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What South Africa needs to do

Resource type: News

South Africa has a high HIV/Aids prevalence that has compromised the immune systems of a substantial proportion of the population, says Dr Anthony Turton.

The developmental legacy has also exposed large portions of the population to heavy metal and radionuclide contamination arising from more than a century of gold mining, much of which was largely unregulated, he warns.

This means having to focus on:

  • Microcystins, of which South Africa has a load in its water storage facilities that is among the highest in the world.

“No high confidence studies have been done, and this is bordering on the criminally negligent if we do not address this issue as a matter of national priority,” Turton says. “We need to know if microcystins are causing human health problems, specifically in communities that are immune-compromised, and then design intervention strategies based on this new robust science.”

  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals in water are a growing problem, driven largely by the country’s loss of dilution, he warns. This means that these chemicals are being recycled without being removed, leading to concentration and bio-accumulation.
  • Partially metabolised medication is also a problem. Given the country’s high HIV/Aids rate, there is a growing antiretroviral load, which passes like any other medication through the body in partly metabolised forms.

“This means that we are going to be seeing higher levels of antiretrovirals in our rivers which, by implication, means that these complex chemical compounds will be entering the human population over time, either through the drinking water stream or through produce that has been irrigated with contaminated water.”

This specific South African issue is nested in a bigger technical problem known as Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs), which is a growing global concern but is sufficiently unique to warrant strategic attention on its own.

“We need to develop the science to understand this better,” says Turton. “This is clearly a national priority that has major political implications.”

  • Radionuclide and heavy metal contamination is the result of more than a century of largely unregulated gold mining, resulting in contamination in rivers flowing out of most gold mining areas, and this needs urgent scientific study, he says.

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