Sunday, 2 February 2020

Pollution has no borders

Asopos River, Greece


this is about the past...(or about the future, as well?)

If we do not learn from the past, we are condemned to live it again, though.

September 2009: I stood as a candidate MP for the Greek Green Party...
Failed miserably, on one hand.
On the other hand, though, that was a catalyst to start a project on the pollution of the river Asopos in Greece and the impact of the river pollution to the food chain.


Intro
Asopos river basin: heavy metal pollution may be a white collar crime 
The Asopos River basin (map), 60 km to the north of Athens, is a heavily industrialized area responsible for an estimated twenty percent of Greece’s industrial output. It also produces agricultural goods destined for domestic and international consumption.
Studies have shown that since industrialization in the region began in the late 1960s, cancer and mortality rates have risen disproportionately among the residents of Oinofyta compared to the rest of the country. The severity of the case has drawn international attention, with Greece being condemned last June for violating the residents’ right to health by the European Committee of Social Rights, an institution overseen by the Council of Europe. Their plight even came to the attention of U.S. activist Erin Brockovich, whose role in establishing in the U.S. corporate culpability for heavy metal pollution, and in particular hexavalent chromium just like in the Asopos case, was made famous by the eponymous Hollywood film in which she was portrayed by Julia Roberts.

The Problem and our Research
This article is based on our previous paper.1 Heavy metals do not biodegrade in the environment and readily bioaccumulate to toxic levels.2 Anthropogenic activities are the main sources of heavy metal contamination in plants,3 especially in countries where domestic and industrial waste is widely applied to the land for irrigation purposes.
The impact on our diet of contaminated crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes is of great importance4,5 as it has been proved that serious systemic health problems can develop as a result of excessive accumulation of dietary heavy metals in the human body.6
Our team in the Laboratory of Food Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry (Deptartment of Chemistry, University of Athens) has analysed the levels of heavy metals in carrots, onions and potatoes cultivated in the Asopos region in central Greece; this is the second largest industrial area in Greece and an area where the water bed is polluted by heavy metals.7 The results showed that the levels of nickel (Ni) and chromium (Cr) in Asopos food were up to nine times higher than the respective levels of the plants grown in non-polluted areas. The impact of these trace elements on the concentrations of secondary metabolites and antioxidant activity in the above-mentioned tuber plants has also been studied by our team and the results showed that, in carrots, the levels of b-carotene and in potatoes, the levels of lutein, both from the Asopos area, were statistically significantly lower compared to the control ones.8
In a further study,1 we also investigated the uptake of Ni and Cr added in known levels to the irrigation water, by potatoes, carrots and onions. The plants were cultivated in a soil which had never previously been polluted with Cr and Ni from external sources. The levels of Cr(VI) and Ni(II) used in irrigation water were similar to those that can actually be found in the two polluted areas (Asopos river and Messapia, due to polluted underground waters).

The cross-contamination of the food chain (our first Scientific paper)
The levels of Ni in Asopos food were found up to 9 times higher than control (e.g., Asopos potatoes had an average Ni content of 800 µg/kg compared to 78 µg/kg in control, whereas Asopos carrots had an average Ni content of 474 µg/kg compared to 93 µg/kg in control). Likewise, the levels of Cr were found to be about 2 times higher than control (e.g., Asopos carrots were found to have an average Cr content of 43 µg/kg compared to 20 µg/kg in control).

some thoughts
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.

= = =

any similarity to Irish cases might be coincidental (or might not be?)

Ioannis Zabetakis [ioannis.zabetakis@ul.ie]

Head
Biological Sciences
UL






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