Toxic aftermath

Pollution of the past haunts our present

Published: Monday 31 December 2001

heavy metals can persist in the environment for thousands of years. This astounding fact was proved recently after researchers from the uk-based Nottingham Trent University analysed ancient and current environmental pollution in a place called Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan. They found that pollutants from mines and smelters operating thousands of years ago are, till date, taking their toll on the health of residents of Wadi Faynan (, November 26, 2001). "Even after 2,000 years of dilution by environmental agencies such as wind, the heavy metals remain in high concentrations and continue to exert toxic affects on plants, animals and humans," said F Brian Pyatt, a researcher at the university.

The researchers measured current levels of copper and lead in the arid and semi-arid regions of Wadi Faynan, where Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans and Byzantines carried out large-scale copper mining decades ago. At present nomads inhabit the regions. Ironically, the researchers found that copper and lead concentrations in the regions were exceptionally high even after 2,000 years of wide-open exposure to rain and wind erosion. According to them, the high concentration of metals corresponds to the health problems of the regions, ranging from nausea, diarrhoea and convulsions to coma and death.

Pyatt noted that the link between health problems and ancient industrial history of an area is not unique to the Middle East. "There are many areas of the world where toxic elements mined years ago still persist in the environment," said J P Grattan, a researcher at Nottingham Trent and a member of the research team. As an example he pointed out an area of southwest England known as the Tamar Valley, where mining conducted between 1880 and 1910 produced heavy metal byproducts that are still present in the environment. According to him, modern industry should learn from the mistakes of the past. It should not adopt techniques that will not only affect the present generation but also the future ones, the researchers opined.

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