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Cancer in the soil - Farmers not aware of contamination

Scientists find dangerous levels of killer metals in Manchester, St Elizabeth

BY RHOMA TOMLINSON Sunday Observer writer

Sunday, March 11, 2012    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Scientists in central Jamaica say they have found dangerous levels of the potentially deadly heavy metals arsenic and cadmium in a number of farming communities in Manchester and St Elizabeth.

The scientists, who are from Northern Caribbean University's College of Natural and Applied Sciences, say tests that they conducted on soil have revealed "a lot of pockets" of both elements in the two parishes on the island's south coast.

Dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences Dr Vincent Wright, whose team made the findings, raised concerns about the arsenic levels in particular during an interview with the Sunday Observer late Thursday.

Dr Wright refused to disclose the actual communities affected, for "fear of raising alarm" among residents, but described the situation as "a very serious problem" and noted that not even farmers in the affected communities were aware of the soil contamination. He said traces of both heavy metals were also found in some plants.

The potentially deadly arsenic is a silver-grey substance which develops naturally in the earth's crust, as well as in plants and animals. It can also be released into the environment through natural activities, such as rock erosion and forest fires, or through human actions, including copper smelting, mining and coal burning.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control, high levels of arsenic can also come from certain fertilisers and animal feeding operations.

It is used in paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps and semi-conductors.

Arsenic attacks the body's vital organs, cripples the body's immune system and can cause cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), arsenic is found in groundwater supplies in a number of countries. "Long-term human exposure, through drinking of contaminated water, is an important public health problem in some regions and countries," the WHO said.

Depending on the severity of exposure, affected persons may suffer from head and stomach aches, convulsions, severe diarrhoea, change in pigmentation, especially in the fingernails, and drowsiness.

Cadmium is a known cancer-causing heavy metal, which can lead to softening of the bones and severe kidney problems. It is found in electronics, including batteries. A diet high in zinc is said to be able to combat cadmium symptoms.

Dr Wright said no contact has yet been made with the health ministry about the findings, and his team had not done checks to see whether or not persons in the communities affected had become ill as a result of exposure. But he cautioned residents in both parishes to maintain good nutritional levels to strengthen their immune systems.

He said despite the university's concerns, "we can't do anything immediately, we can't evacuate a whole community, but we can do testing, whether plant or soil, provide consultation and do research... that's what the university is here for".

He said the situation was so bad that no soil treatment could alleviate the problem.

"The only thing that could be done right now is to encourage people not to live in some of these areas," he said.

It is not the first time that Jamaica has had problems with heavy metal contamination.

In 2004, environmental scientists at the University of the West Indies (UWI) found a large concentration of lead in sections of Mona Commons and Kintyre, communities close to the UWI. A number of children were affected, and residents in the two communities were evacuated.

Since then, numerous calls have been made by UWI Professor Gerald Lalor for structured ways to be found to dispose of lead content in Jamaican communities.

There are tests available to measure arsenic in your blood, urine, hair, and fingernails. The urine test is the most reliable test for arsenic exposure within the last few days. Tests on hair and fingernails can measure exposure to high levels of arsenic over the past 6-12 months. These tests can determine if you have been exposed to above-average levels of arsenic. They cannot predict whether the arsenic levels in your body will affect your health.

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