An environmental catastrophe witnessed in Hungary yesterday has already claimed the lives of 4 people, including 2 children, and injured hundreds more. The incident happened after persistent rains burst the banks of a 700,000 m3 reservoir of red sludge waste from aluminium plant Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt near the village of Ajka.
The catastrophe has also injured hundreds of local residents in surrounding villages, as the toxic waste burned their skin and destroyed all wildlife that it came into contact with. The long-term health effects are a major concern, also because superficial burns could lead to deeper tissue damage, affecting also the body’s organs.
Although rescuers started trying to clean up the red sludge immediately, the impact is still incalculable, and Hungary has declared a state of emergency in the region. A Slovak rescue team with specially trained sniffer dogs was dispatched to help find survivors and bodies in the toxic waste, before the rescue effort was taken over by the Hungarian Army.
The dogs could not be used, though, because of the depth of the toxic mud, and rescuers had to wear special protective clothing to search the flooded houses for survivors, but even so many of the rescue workers had to be taken to hospital for skin burns.
The World Wildlife Fund has already declared that it is concerned over the long-term environmental impacts of this toxic disaster, which inundated six nearby villages. In a press release, the WWF has stated that the leaked material could be slightly radioactive and contain highly corrosive chemicals and toxic elements like lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium.
The accident happened about 100km from the River Danube, but it has already covered some 40 square kilometres in the vicinity and the full impact on water sources is hard to predict. The worst affected is the River Marcal, which now registers a pH level of around 13, and so rescuers are pouring acid into the river, which is now devoid of wildlife. This will hopefully reduce the concentration levels before the pollution reaches the River Raba and the River Danube.
Andreas Beckmann, Director of the WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme, said that normally the sludge would not pose a direct threat to the Danube, but because of the rainy season the sludge will spread faster and further and so will most likely escape also into the River Danube. It will take years for the region to recover and Robert Fidrich from Friends of the Earth in Hungary said the affected villages will be uninhabitable for over a decade.