Industry's Hidden Environmental Costs
By Mario Osava*
Contaminated soil threatens the health of some two million people in Brazil, say authorities. Gas stations are the leading culprits behind this type of pollution in the state of Sao Paulo, the nation's industrial center.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Buildings whose foundations could explode and farms with toxic soil are the warning signals in Brazil about the risks of industrialization without precautionary measures.
According to a preliminary report released in late January by the Health Ministry there are at least 689 areas in Brazil with ''contaminated or potentially contaminated soil'' and which are home to a total of 1.9 million people.
Sao Paulo state, Brazil's industrial center, holds 157 of the sites already identified in the preliminary inventory, with 470,950 residents ''exposed or at risk of exposure'' to the contamination.
But CETESB, the state's environmental clean-up agency and a pioneer in Latin America, recorded 255 contaminated sites in Sao Paulo in 2002, 727 in 2003 and 1,366 in November 2004.
The multiplication of sites does not necessarily represent new contamination, but rather greater public awareness, which led to greater reporting, more intensive inspections by officials, and even recognition of blame by those responsible, CESTESB official Alfredo Rocca told Tierramérica
''No longer does a company acquire real estate without first examining its environmental 'liabilities','' said Rocca.
These liabilities, which affect soil and underground water, have accumulated over ''60 years of industrial development'' in Brazil, concentrated in Sao Paulo, noted Rocca.
Contaminated areas multiplied in Sao Paulo mostly due to gas stations, responsible for 69.7 percent of the total sites recorded by CETESB.
There are 8,000 of these service stations in the state, and they are now required to obtain an environmental license, which means each undergoes analysis -- thus revealing spill sites, and old, corroded metal tanks.
Industry is the second leading source of contamination, responsible for 18 percent. Accidents and inadequate handling of waste produce contamination.
In Mauá, near the city of Sao Paulo, buildings were constructed upon an underground industrial waste storage site, which produces gases that could explode. The risk is mitigated through gas extraction, but the value of the real estate plummeted.
Known contamination requires emergency measures, such as blocking use of surrounding underground water supplies, and preventing residents from inhaling toxic vapors, said Rocca.
But many companies resist taking responsibilities and are turning to the courts to gain time, as occurs in industrialized countries like Germany and France, where a resolution to the problem takes ''a minimum of two years,'' he said.
An example of serious contamination and a successful resolution, Rocca said, was the case of Acumuladores Ajax, in Baurú, 345 km from Sao Paulo. The company's battery recovery unit was closed in early 2002 when lead contamination was found in the surrounding areas.
Of 857 children under 12 who were examined -- all living within one km from the factory -- 314 had high levels of lead in their blood and received medical attention. They will receive follow-up treatments until 2012.
Attention was focused in the children because their bodies absorb more lead and they suffer more from the effects of lead poisoning, which can damage the central nervous system, explained Marcia Simonetti, epidemiology monitoring director for the state health department in the Baurú region.
In the poor neighborhoods affected, a five-centimeter layer of soil was removed from roads, patios and vacant lots. Streets and homes with dirt floors were paved, and water tanks were cleaned. Studies were conducted to determine the presence of lead in milk and in locally grown vegetables, the consumption of which was restricted.
This success, especially in health assistance and follow-up with the children, was due to rapid coordination and cooperation of several health, environmental and administrative agencies, both state and municipal, with collaboration from universities and research centers, Simonetti told Tierramérica.
Action was taken ''with transparency'' for the population and the company, which contributed equipment and transportation, and agreed to store contaminated soil, she said.
The contaminated sites found ''are only the tip of the iceberg,'' but it is inevitable that the population will have to live with the undesirable effects of industrialization because alternatives are not always available, Simonetti said.
Rocca is optimistic about a more aware public and institutions that are active on the issue, but deplores the lack of specific legislation for dealing with contaminated soil and water. When the culprit is unknown or is unable to finance the clean up, the state has to step in, said the CETESB official.
A typical case is the Mantovani Landfill in Santo Antonio da Posse, 150 km from Sao Paulo, where hundreds of tons of toxic industrial waste from more than 60 companies accumulated from 1974 until CETESB stepped in to shut down the site in 1987.
The resulting soil and water contamination could extend to neighboring fields and rivers.
Between 22 and 74 million dollars are needed to launch a clean up, and the owner of the landfill does not have enough money. Waldemar Mantovani has already been found guilty by the courts, said Rocca. Now pressure is on the companies that produced the industrial waste to cover the costs.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.