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River Contains Radioactivity
[Rachel's Introduction: "In order to conform to the precautionary principle, further investigations are in process."]
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By Michael Hamlyn
Johannesburg -- Government officials have admitted they are worried about the safety of drinking water drawn from the Wonderfonteinspruit, which has been contaminated with radioactivity for 40 years.

Giving a written reply to a Parliamentary question, Water Affairs Minister Lindiwe Hendricks said that while there was reason for concern, the 40-year-old problem had not produced any conclusive results, or any reason for immediate action.

"However, in order to conform to the precautionary principle, further investigations are in process," she said.

She told her questioner, Gareth Morgan of the Democratic Alliance, in her reply published on Monday that studies undertaken by the various organisations over a period of time concluded that the radioactivity levels in the river water in the area were well within the water quality safety standards.

Risk of exposure varies

"However, there is a concern regarding elevated levels of uranium and heavy metals in the sediment," she said.

"The risk of exposure to humans and animals can be increased if the sediments are stirred up and are in suspension during swimming or when cattle are drinking from the river."

The Wonderfonteinspruit starts near Randfontein in the north and moves all the way down south to Potchefstroom.

Hendricks said the most-recent comprehensive study, done by the Water Research Commission in 2006, concluded that the present status would remain as long as the sediment stayed "wet" and that, chemically, the water was fit for consumption.

This conclusion was supported by the recent Brenk Report commissioned by the national nuclear regulator in 2007.

Unfortunately that report in question is based on only a few samples taken and the interpretations in the study are seen as premature at this stage.

Nevertheless, a public health study looking at blood and urine samples compared 36 individuals exposed to the "contaminated" Wonderfonteinspruit with 24 individuals exposed to the "clean" Mooi River in 2002 and, in essence, no difference was found in the profiles.

"The department has paid serious attention to the concerns raised and, as a result, has consulted widely.

Hot-spot areas will be targeted

"There are a number of different views on the subject and all are being evaluated," said the minister.

A technical working group has been established and has appointed a team of specialists who will identify and rank hot-spot areas targeted for remedial action.

"This team of specialists will also provide the regulators with a remediation plan for identified hot spots," said Hendricks.

"The regulators intend to embark on the clean-up action in collaboration with the mining interest group in the area."

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