TESTS carried out on a sample of oranges from villages close to the Obuasi site of Anglogold Ashanti Company Limited have found startlingly high toxic levels of arsenic, mercury and zinc. The zinc found in the fruits was five times the level permitted by Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency and eight times higher than the stricter level imposed by the World Health Organisation.
The amounts of mercury were also five times above EPA levels and 26 times above the WHO level. The level of arsenic was 24 times higher than the EPA level and a staggering 1226 times above the WHO level.
The discovery of the toxic qualities in Obuasi oranges is among the many worrying findings made by a research on the impact of mining activities in the Adansi West District in general and the Obuasi area in particular, commissioned by Third World Network- Africa and conducted by a team from the University of Ghana, Legon, between 2002 and 2004.
However, the Group Corporate and Community Relations Manager of Anglogold Ashanti, John K Owusu, has dismissed the research findings. “The tests [findings] are not true. There is no mining company in Ghana that uses mercury. Those who use this chemical are the illegal miners” he told The Statesman.
Reached for comment, the Environmental Officer of EPA, William Bannerman, told The Statesman that even though he had heard of the research, TWN had not “written to EPA officially” to inform them on their findings and so he could not comment on them. He, however, said environmental issues are complex and advised research institutions to be very careful about the kind of information they give to the public.
But Yao Graham, the TWN Coordinator, believes the findings “should serve as a wake up call for EPA and Anglogold Ashanti. I expect them to do the same research before they react negatively to it or make their conclusions.” He added: “The report is not arguing for mining activities to stop; they call for a real cost-benefit analysis to be carried out, with the benefit not meaning just the bottom line of the companies' annual accounts but of the health of the communities and the environment.”
Arsenic is a well known poison of antiquity and it can cause various types of cancer including cancers of the liver, lungs, kidneys and prostate. It can also cause cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and anaemia among others. Mercury poisoning on the other hand, can cause irreversible damage to the brain, liver and kidneys.
The study discovered that the long history of underground mining, and more recently surface mining of gold ores associated with compounds rich in various toxic substances such as arsenic, and the various methods used in processing of the ores over the years, have resulted in the pollution of water and soils in the areas and left other negative environmental impacts.
Some of the impacts, according to the study, have resulted in health problems for sections of the population such as villagers whose water sources have been polluted and filled with stagnant water which breeds malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
According to the research, malaria was the most prevalent disease in the Obuasi area as the prevalence rate of 59 per cent in 2003 compared unfavourably with the national rate of 44.3 per cent
The study also found poisons in the soil which get into the food chain of not only locals but of other people leaving far off, such as those who eat the poisoned oranges.