Environment

Study: industrially contaminated sites throughout Serbia threaten human health

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Photo: Serbia Zijin Bor Copper facilities in central Bor (BGEN)

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September 23, 2021

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Published:

September 23, 2021

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Residents of Bor, one of about a dozen industrially contaminated sites identified in Serbia, are exposed to a significantly higher risk of developing and dying from cancer, according to a report which was issued by the Batut public health institute in 2020 but has only recently become publicly available, thanks to a local non-governmental organization.

With this document, titled Improving Contaminated Sites Management in Serbia, the state institutions which took part in its drafting have officially confirmed that there are sites throughout Serbia where the air, water, and soil are so contaminated that they cause disease and death.

The state has for years avoided an open discussion with stakeholders on the critical environmental problems, often describing environmental hotspots as something that inevitably follows economic growth. However, the study shows that the problem will not go away if it is swept under the carpet.

The document should also put a stop to the wrangling over the proportions and harmful effects of contaminated air, water, and soil and mark the beginning of concrete action aimed at alleviating and eliminating the pollution. The report sends a clear message to people living in the contaminated areas regarding the gravity of their situation, but it is also perhaps a final warning to authorities, recommending steps to be taken in order to prevent further damage to public health.

The document contains a list of industrially contaminated sites in Serbia:

  1. Copper mines in Bor (including Bor, Veliki Krivelj, and Cerovo),
  2. Copper mines in Majdanpek,
  3. Open-pit lignite mines and thermal power plant Kolubara,
  4. Lignite mine Kostolac,
  5. Lead and zinc mine Ljubovija,
  6. Abandoned antimony mine Zajača,
  7. Cement plants – Beočin, Kosjerić, Popovac,
  8. Petrochemical plants – Novi Sad, Pančevo.

The document was produced as part of a wider project aimed at strengthening Serbia’s capacities for preventing adverse health and ecological impacts of contaminated sites and related hazardous substances, which was implemented by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2018, with financial support from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The document was completed in 2020, but has only recently become publicly available, thanks to a Bor-based NGO

The report was made available to the public when it was posted online by the Community Development Association Bor, a local non-governmental organization, which obtained the document from the Batut institute in accordance with the law on access to public information. The NGO said it had faced numerous problems trying to obtain the document.

In the document, a contaminated site is defined as “an area affected by a single chemical contamination of a single environmental matrix (e.g. soil contamination caused by a given pesticide)” and “a large area with soil, water, air, and food chain contamination by multiple chemicals (e.g. contamination caused by long-term emissions of a petrochemical complex).”

Bor is exposed to complex industrial pollution, as both copper mining and smelting activities are present in the town or its vicinity, according to the study. Lazarevac (a suburb of the Serbian capital Belgrade) and Veliki Crljeni are both part of the same coal mining and coal-fired power plant complex (lignite mining in Lazarevac, lignite-fired power plant in Veliki Crljeni), while Zajača, being a part of an antimony mining and smelting complex in western Serbia, now hosts a toxic shale landfill weighing about 60,000 tons.

Pilot study in Bor: significantly higher risk of cancer incidence and death

A pilot study in the city of Bor was conducted to evaluate the industrial pollution exposure of the population, in order to describe the health profile of residents.

“For all malignant tumors except skin tumors, there is a significantly higher risk in cancer incidence, both in men and women. This pattern is observed for specific cancer localizations, including colon and rectal cancer, pancreas, kidney, bladder, thyroid, lymphopoietic tissue, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and mesothelioma. A significantly higher risk of lung cancer incidence was also registered in both men and women in Bor,” according to the report.

“For all malignant tumors except skin tumors, there is also a significantly higher risk of cancer mortality, both in men and women in Bor. This pattern is observed for lung cancers, as well as certain specific cancer localizations, including liver, pancreas, melanoma, bladder cancer, lymphopoietic tissue, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and myeloid leukemia. The same pattern was observed in cervical and ovarian cancer mortality in women, as well as in prostate and testicular cancer mortality in men.”

“An analysis of mortality for all causes of death, from cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and urogenital diseases, revealed that there is a higher risk of mortality in Bor in almost all age groups in both men and women. A higher risk of mortality in both sexes was recorded for all diseases and disorders, Diabetes mellitus, circulatory system diseases, respiratory diseases, as well as congenital deformities, malformations and chromosomal aberrations,” according to the document.

Almost one-third of contaminated and potentially contaminated sites are municipal waste landfills

The study identified 709 contaminated and potentially contaminated sites throughout Serbia. There are 93 sites in need of remediation and 564 sites that might need remediation. Sites such as former military sites, petrol and filling stations, dry cleaners, waste water treatment installations, and pipelines for the transportation of hazardous substances are not included. Municipal waste landfills account for the largest share, of 31.17%, in the total number of these sites, reads the report.

Deficiencies observed in contaminated sites management

The document also provides a list of deficiencies observed in the management of contaminated sites, which testifies to inaction on the part of the state and institutions in the field of environmental protection, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems.

  • Insufficient enforcement of applicable regulations
  • Insufficiently clear division of roles and responsibilities of competent institutions in the wider field of environment and health
  • Lack of multi-sectoral cooperation and approach in solving environmental health problems. Inadequate environmental monitoring
  • Lack of data on the state of the environment and its impact on health
  • Systematic monitoring of the health status of the population in contaminated areas not yet established
  • Lack of human resources and expertise
  • Lack of financial resources
  • Technical disadvantages
  • Insufficient public awareness and engagement

Insufficient public awareness and engagement.

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