City gags on toxic air

2008-03-15 00:00

It’s time to clear the air and find the real culprit of bad smells in the city. Residents have been complaining to the newspaper about various malodorous stenches that are popping up around the city.

Firstly, the infamous “cat pee” smell has returned to the city, and a local environmentalist says the culprit could be the Darvill sewage works.

Residents have complained of smelling the offensive odour from most parts of the city, while others have been revolted by the smell of raw sewage wafting into their homes.

But Umgeni Water, which controls the sewage works, says there is no evidence to prove that these smells emanate from there.

Anesh Orrie from Orient Heights said the ammonia-like smell is very persistent. He also complained about a smell that surfaced on Monday night during the rainstorm, which he described as “a different, terrible odour”.

Orrie described it as a toxic chemical mixture of adhesive, plastic and rubber.

“It’s definitely from an industrial source,” he said.

He named two factories he feels could be the source.

Prava Maharaj, also from Orient Heights, said the smell experienced on Monday night was “noxious”. He suspects that industries are venting their chemicals periodically. Maharaj said a doctor who treated his grand-daughter for respiratory problems told him that Pietermaritzburg has a high incidence of infants with breathing problems.

He also expressed concern about issues surrounding global warming and said that industries should be more responsible.

Shanti Hutheram of Mountain Rise told Weekend Witness that she smells both the cat urine smell and the smell of raw sewage from her home.

“It seems to come in intervals in the evening and it’s a filthy smell that permeates the curtains and even the bedding. It’s most annoying.”

• The cat urine smell has also been detected in Willowton, Sobantu, Mountain Rise, Scottsville, Hayfields and Montrose.

• Air quality expert Siziwe Khanyile, from environmental watchdog organisation groundWork, told Weekend Witness that investigations by the municipality have revealed that the bad sewage-like smell may be coming from sulphides being released from the city’s sewage works.

“The sewage works has a capacity problem, which means they probably cannot cope with the influx

of sewage, especially during the week,” said Khanyile.

“They need to monitor and test the site regularly. We have been assured that air quality monitoring is being carried out by the municipality at the landfill site nearby.”

She said that the sharp cat urine smell may also be wafting in from Darvill. The distinctive smell was detected in the city last year, but seemed to dissipate after it received media attention. The culprit was never definitely identified.

Khanyile said groundWork has requested an open meeting with the city and Umgeni Water to discuss the problems at the sewage works. “We want to be able to engage with the authorities and have the results of all tests they carry out made public.”

Umgeni Water spokesman Shami Harichunder for said that they too have received complaints about bad smells from Scottsville and Mountain Rise, but said investigations had revealed there is no evidence to suggest that the sewage works are the culprit.

“However, in efforts to find the origin of the smell, we have set up a task team comprising of Umgeni Water, the Water Affairs and Forestry Department, Msunduzi Municipality and the provincial Health Department.”

Harichunder said they have received no communication from groundWork or the municipality about a public meeting, but that they would be welcome to approach them.

He added that they will continue to monitor the complaints about odours and expected to have more results from their investigations by the end of March. He said these will be made public in April. He said that the investigations will also reveal if Darvill indeed has a capacity problem.

Evodia Mahlangu, spokeswoman at the municipality, confirmed that meetings were held with Umgeni Water, the department of Water Affairs and Forestry and the Environmental Health Section.

She said a “limited amount of monitoring” has been conducted.

When asked if there are health risks associated with any of the smells, Mahlangu said biological processes such as those at sewage plants and oil refineries, are chiefly responsible for emitting sulphur to the atmosphere in a reduced form as hydrogen sulphide (H2S), carbonyl sulphide(COS) and dimethylsulphide [(CH3)2 S]. “Of the sulphides, the most important one is H2S, as it has important anthropogenic and natural sources. H2S is colourless, and has a strong, offensive odour (like rotten eggs). It can be detected at concentrations as low as 0,5 parts per billion. Apart from its strong odour, H2S blackens lead based paints.”

• Anthropogenic: from other sources; not natural sources.

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