Living in a polluted world

IMG_2344.jpg[April 2018] I’ve just been to ‘the most polluted town in Europe’, and, at first sight, it didn’t look that bad, I’ve been to grimier, grittier places than the rural valley of Copşa Mică, Romania. It is both a legacy of the past and also a promise to the future. The massive, black chimney linking the blue sky to the dark mounds of waste was the clue, but away from that site, the damage took a trained eye to notice. Fortunately, I’d come in the company of literally a coach load of some of Europe’s leading soil scientists and they saw the damage very quickly.

From the late 1930s onwards, the huge tower was part of a metal smelting factory that spewed out not just steam and smoke but heavy metals that polluted the surrounding land and people. The cadmium, lead, copper and zinc spread out across the area, and people; these are the heavy metals that need to be kept out of your body and food system. The factory is now closed, leaving many residents without work, and nostalgic for a time when they at least had a job, however dangerous and damaging it might have been. Agriculture, the other significant employer in the area, could be severely restricted if the pollution is left uncontained

As our hosts, Mihail Dumitru and Nicoletta Vrinceanu from the National Research and Development Institute for Soil Science, Agrochemistry and Environmental Protection, explained, the pollution has damaged the soil; it has made the soil more acidic and lessened the biodiversity essential for a healthy below ground ecosystem. This damage has left the soil more prone to erosion, as rainwater sheers it away from the hillsides, and more compacted as the structure has weakened. Other sites facing this problem have seen remediation through plants taking up the pollutants or at the most extreme the soil being removed. These options are not technically or financially feasible in Copşa Mică. It would cost €16,000 to remediate 1 hectare of land which is valued at €1,000 per hectare. Instead, scientists are working with local farmers to trial ways in which the pollutants are immobilised in the ground and are not taken up by plants, so do not enter the food chain either through plants or animals.

This approach appears to be counter-intuitive, our reactions to pollutants are to expel them and to contain them away from us; to clean up and tidy it away. As we start to realise the scale and scope of the pollution we have released into our shared ecosystems, be that plastics, carbon into the atmosphere or heavy metals into the soil, adaptation starts to become a more pragmatic, although uncomfortable, approach. The test squares of trials of grasses and amendments we gathered around, gazing back at the tower, are the way in which this approach is being worked out. It doesn’t offer an answer to those who are looking for work now, but it does suggest a way forward that is sustainable for some of the residents. This limited, pragmatic and evidence-based approach to how we might live with dangerous pollution is a social as well as a scientific trial.

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