Let’s bring to mind two different images.
Firstly, let’s travel back in 2000, the film “Erin Brockovich” that was set in Hinkley California, where carcinogenic hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)] killed people and made Erin Brockovich famous for her battle against the energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Since the film, a lot of research projects have focused on the toxicity of Cr(VI) and today we know that Cr(VI) causes cancer (through skin contact, inhalation and drinking). Because of all these toxicological data, Environment Protection Agency (EPA) California has proposed to the legislative bodies of California state a new legal limit (i.e. identified as “Public Health Goal”) of Cr(VI), i.e. 0.02 μg/l. Incidentally, the current legal limit of Cr(VI) in drinking water is some 2,500 times higher, at 50 μg/l.
Secondly, let’s think of a dead bird as shown in the video “Plastic Plague”. The plastic mass of material travelling in the Pacific causes an inexplicable biochemical phenomenon: albatross chicks with full bellies are starving! The answer is simple and shocking: the stomachs of the baby birds were found full of industrial plastics. The albatross parents have by mistake fed plastic to their babies…
How are these images connected? The connection is these two words: “waste management”, two words which mean nothing today.
Focusing to greek Hinkleys, Greece today has still tens of illegal landfills. The construction of an effective management system for domestic and industrial waste remains far off.
Apart from Cr(VI), rivers in Greece are contaminated by the illegal dumping of domestic and industrial waste, cocktails of heavy metals, fertilisers and pesticides while the local authorities and prefects remain blind to what is happening.
The non-existence of waste management in Greece has paramount consequences for the environment and the safety of the food that is produced in contaminated areas.
In the area of Asopos, Greece, there is an interesting polluting phenomenon: some industries dump directly to the water bed chemical waste while few hundred yards further, the farmers use bore wholes to pump out water to cultivate food tubers.
In the lab, our team has carried out experiments simulating the polluted water-bed in Asopos region and proved recently that heavy metals (i.e. nickel and chromium in this case) can migrate from the polluted water bed to tuberous plants and root vegetables.
The implications of such migration being that these toxic agents can enter the food chain leading to long-term, chronic consumption and the many putative health problems such exposure can cause. Part of the issue is that unlike certain organic residues metal ions persist, they cannot be degraded or otherwise broken down into less harmful constituents by virtue of being elements rather than compounds. Toxic chemical pollution originates also by mining activities, industrial and domestic wastewater and sewage sludge.
Despite the dire situation of the emerging presence of heavy metals in the food chain, the application of the EU “polluter pays-principle” is still non-existing.
In Italy, Felice Casson, now a member of the Italian senate, became famous because of the high fines that were levied when he was the top prosecutor in the trial of directors from Enichem and Montedison. The case was centred on an environmental disaster and the death of 157 workers due to PVC production in an industrial district of Venice, in 2005. The fines, following the “polluter pays-principle”, totalled 500 million euros.
And yet, in Greece, with fines of a few thousand euros, polluters will never pay the real cost of their damage. They will just pay the fine and continue to pollute the environment and – indirectly- our food chain.
In order to try to stop this problem, we need to remember that:
Ø Pollution has no borders and
Ø Greece needs its own Felice Casson.
P.S. Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, a Nobel laureate, once wrote that, “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me”*. In the case of waste management, his line could perhaps be transformed to read: “Whichever river flows, Hinkley comes to mind”.
* the full poem is on page 9, here
Let’s bring to mind two different images.