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29.08.2019 Europe

More children test positive for arsenic poisoning near French mining town

Pascal Pavani/AFP
LISTEN AUG 29, 2019

Ten more children living near a former gold mine in the town of Salsigne, southern France, have tested positive for arsenic poisoning. Parents and locals fear that waste from the site is still leaking into soil and groundwater.

Officials now say that 46 of 143 children who were tested in the area have been found with high levels of arsenic – 10 or more microgrammes of arsenic per gram of creatine in urine samples.

Testing began this summer after residents became alarmed about contamination risks when the mine was flooded during heavy rains last October.

The Occitanie Regional Health Agency (ARS) health also said that it had re-tested 11 children first tested in June.

Of the 11 children, one still had more than 10 microgrammes, "which can indicate long-term exposure", Jean-Jacques Morfoisse, deputy director of the ARS Occitanie, told AFP.

Two others saw their test results rise above 10 microgrammes, Morfoisse said, while the arsenic readings fell to under the recommended level for the eight others.

The Salsigne mine in the Aude valley, near Carcassonne, was the world's biggest source of arsenic, as well as Europe's largest gold mine, before it was closed in 2004.

Soil, atmospheric testing for arsenic
Millions of tons of toxic waste were then stocked at five sites nearby, and local associations say some have begun to leak.

Several parents called on local authorities to take urgent measures, and officials closed off access to some playgrounds and also began soil and atmospheric testing for arsenic.

Officials also prohibited swimming or fishing in the nearby Orbiel river and banned the eating of fruits and vegetables produced in 12 nearby communes for up to four months.

Acute exposure to arsenic can occur after eating certain foods, like shellfish or meat. The ARS acknowledges that "in the large majority of cases" high levels are the result of ingesting contaminated food or water.

Chronic arsenic poisoning can lead to discolouration and hardening of the skin, and eventually cause a variety of cancers.

President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged a "worrying" situation in a written response to two senators from the region seeking an inquiry, and assured that "everything will be done to protect residents".

(with AFP)