Rietvlei Dam a ticking time bomb

Henk Schoeman enjoying the beauty of Rietvlei Dam. He is unaware of the dangerous chemicals lurking in the water.

Rietvlei Dam, the pristine and tranquil nature reserve highlight of Pretoria, is a time bomb of destruction for fish and water fowl. Recent studies show that under its calm waters lurks deadly oestrogenic and agricultural chemicals causing ‘feminisation’ of male creatures and cancer. About a third of Pretoria’s residents receive their water from this dam.

This dire cancer warning is contained in the SA Water Research Commission report, which states that a “dangerously high level” of chemical pollution has been detected in the Rietvlei Dam. This dam has been a source of drinking water for 27% of the residents of Pretoria and Centurion since 1933. According to the report, the level of chemicals in the water has now become a huge threat to public health and is also greatly endangering all the wildlife dependent on it.

Professor Gary Ost’hoff, a bio-chemist of the University of the Free State, said that pollution effecting sexual changes and causing cancer was not unknown. Various chemicals, such as those derived from poly-plastic bags, have an oestrogenic effect that is especially noticeable in males, for instance when men have poor beard growth or a low sperm count. The testosterone-activated processes are inhibited because oestrogenic processes become dominant, he said.

He explained that the polomiser in poly-plastics oozed out, and that if it came into contact with drinking water, this pollutant mimicked the structure of oestrogenic chemicals. “There is scientific proof that it can affect males,” he said. Referring to the carcinogenic aspect, he said it could be caused by a variety of pollutants. “By the same token, oestrogen is also linked with cancer, but this comes about with a chain reaction.”

Prof Riana Bornman, the head of andrology at the Department of Urology at the University of Pretoria, said the research team tested male animals and fish dependent on the Rietvlei Dam’s water and found that the mixture of industrial and agricultural chemicals polluting this water resource were combining and creating oestrogenic chemicals that led to the ‘feminisation’ of male creatures.

“For instance, male barbers (Clarius gariepinus) were found with female ovaries and clearly defined, underdeveloped penises,” she said.

Pretoria and Centurion’s drinking water is pumped from this dam and distributed via a water purification plant to a water network, so this water can be regarded as reasonably safe, provided that all water filtering and purifying equipment works as it should. What worries scientists, though, is that there are thousands of indigent squatters on the banks of the river using the water daily.

Feeding the dam is the Sesmylspruit, five fountains (one is located on an adjacent property) and five boreholes. Upstream from Rietvlei Dam is the Marais Dam, which acts as a sludge dam for Rietvlei Dam. People living along its banks are using unpurified water for irrigation, household purposes and for their cattle on a daily basis, something which, according to scientists, definitely poses a health problem.

In a note of Lufuno Mukwevho of the Centre for Scientific Research in Pretoria, it was also pointed out that with the close proximity of Rietvlei Dam to the R25 interstate highway, the pollution from aircraft and motor vehicles also caused air pollution, which eventually ended up in the dam water.

Du P Martins

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