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Tuesday, September 14, 1999 Published at 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK


Danube pollution warning

The morning after in Novi Sad: WWF says the hidden damage persists

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The World Wide Fund for Nature says drinking water supplies in parts of Yugoslavia and neighbouring countries are at risk in the aftermath of the Balkan war.

WWF sent a six-strong team to Yugoslavia for three days at the end of July. It concentrated on the Pancevo chemical complex near Belgrade, and on the Novi Sad oil refinery.

Installations at Pancevo include a fertiliser plant, a vinyl chloride manufacturing plant, and an oil refinery.

WWF said its team found "an enormous deficiency in the monitoring of toxic chemicals in the countries of central and eastern Europe. The pollution monitoring programme for the Danube has been particularly weak".

It said this made it difficult to distinguish contamination caused by the war from previous or continuing pollution.

Pollution spreading

"However, it's clear that the immediate clean-up and stopping of the current pollution coming from Pancevo and Novi Sad are vital."

The WWF team found evidence that toxic pollutants released close to places hit by the NATO bombing were now spreading into surrounding areas.

[ image: Pancevo burns after a raid]
Pancevo burns after a raid
It concluded that there was considerable atmospheric pollution, probably affecting the environment and public health.

Soil and water samples it took "showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other highly toxic substances, including dioxins".

WWF says the contaminants are now "threatening groundwater drinking supplies and natural resources in several countries of the area".

Mercury accumulates in the food chain, and can be carried long distances in air and water. WWF says the mercury in soil samples taken at Pancevo was 2.5 times above the level that would trigger action if found in a country like the Netherlands.

Exceeding safety levels

The US Environmental Protection Agency says PAHs are highly carcinogenic. WWF found water in a canal at Pancevo containing PAHs 15 times above the EPA limit for drinking water.

Soil samples from Pancevo contained PAHs 10 to 11 times higher than Dutch action levels, while at Novi Sad they were twice as high.

EDC is a highly persistent and toxic pollutant which can affect the human reproductive, nervous and immune systems.

[ image: Still too early to find all the answers]
Still too early to find all the answers
WWF says hydrocarbons, which it found in soil at Pancevo to amount to more than 25% of soil content, are also a problem.

"One drop of oil is sufficient to contaminate one cubic meter of drinking water, making it undrinkable."

Pekka Haavisto, the chairman of the United Nations Balkan Task Force, said UN experts had found environmental "hot-spots" at Pancevo and Kragujevac, an industrial town in central Serbia.

Disaster not likely

He said both needed urgent action, and there was a possibility that rising water levels could push mercury, dioxins and petrochemical waste in the canal there into the Danube. But he played down talk of an ecological catastrophe.

"We didn't find any alarming things in regards to the water-taking issues."

Mr Haavisto said the war's long-term impact on the region's biodiversity was likely to be "minimal", adding that he was more concerned about the presence in national parks of unexploded weapons.

The UN is still investigating the possible consequences of the use of depleted uranium weapons in the war, testing "soil and material samples" it had taken. But there was no word of its possible effects on people.

"We have not been able to do that kind of work at all."

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