When a 9 year old child passed away because of blood cancer and there was talk that this may have resulted  from the practice of eating soil from a tailings dam, we, EEO Monitors,  saw a need to research this and find out what was really happening. We learnt that there was a practice, mostly among women, to eat soil from the tailings dams as a substitute for medicine.

The tailings dam is recognised by the name of Vlakfontein 130-ir and is situated inTsakane an old Anglo Gold platinum mine. The tailings dam is near the communities of Langaville Ext 5 and 6, Tsakane, Barcelona, KwaThema Ext 3 and Marikana informal settlements. Even though the place is in the veld, people still walk the distance to go and dig soil there. The tailings dams are not secured and easily accessible to people.

We divided into 4 groups. The first group went to interview people who dig the soil, the second group interviewed people who sold the soil, the third group interviewed people who consumed the soil and the last group interviewed community health care workers.

We found cases where people are sick because of the soil and that it had terminal side effects that show up in the long run. The sad part of this is that a lot of people do not believe that their “chocolate” was addictive and had dangerous chemicals in it.They believe it only when something very bad happens to them or to their loved ones.

People who consume the soil

First we spoke with consumers of the soil. Our monitor, Qedusizi, interviewed a diabetic person. She found a 33 year old women lying on her death bed. The women had two children and lived in her parents’ house with her siblings and their children. She learnt that the woman had been eating the soil for 2 years and she was recently diagnosed with diabetes because the soil formed starch in her pancreas. The woman bought the soil for R2. She eat the soil every day and bought 2 packets 3 times a week.

The woman did not want her name to be mentioned. She told Qedusizi “I was constipated and decided to go to the clinic and I was given stomach pills and something for constipation but they didn’t work. I tried the soil. The soil tasted like Milky Bar chocolate but a bit rich and it would take away any craving I had for anything I couldn’t afford. It satisfied my desires” she added. However because the pains did not stop after taking the medication, she returned to the Kwa-Thema clinic and that’s when she was referred to Pholosong Hospital for x-ray.

“The x-ray results showed that I had something in my pancreas and the doctors asked me if I eat any kind of soil because such problems are related to eating any type of soil. I confessed that I eat white soil from tailings dam” she added. She mentioned that the doctor said that the soil had formed starch in her pancreas and her sugar levels were not corresponding as normal to her body. She was then given insulin and diabetic medication to help with the sugar levels. “If only I knew about the dangers of the soil I would not have eaten it in the first place because now I am suffering with a chronic disease that might cause me cancer.”

The most amazing part is that some women who consume the soil have not reported sickness as yet. “When I eat the soil every day I do not get periods so I buy the soil when I do not have money for pads” said a high school learner. One woman said that she ate the soil for leisure as it already was her habit and she just could not stop buying the soil because it had done no damage to her.

People who dig the soil

The  second team went to the Vlakfontein 130-ir Tsakane tailings dam where they found a man digging for the soil. He poured the big pieces into his wheel barrow; he looked like he was in his late 40’s. The man did not want to tell them how much they sold the soil for or who they sold it to. The man mentioned that he was not working alone; he was working with five other men and was recruited by his friend.

“We sometimes fight over the soil because other people come from nowhere and dig at our spots” said the man.

We learnt that the selling of this dangerous soil is a result of unemployment; “I sell the soil for a living, I also want to buy bread for my children” said the soil seller, “if I were to get a job I would quit selling the soil” he added. The man has a clientele that he sells to. He said that he makes R1200 a month, depending how many orders he received from his clients.

He was not aware of the dangerous chemicals contained in the soil. When looking at his skin you could spot a rash on his hands with white residue, something that looked like eczema. He mentioned that he is taking medication for it but he is not sure if it is a result of digging the soil or something else.     

The People who Sold the Soil

The third team went to Kwa Thema CBD and Springs CBD, the busiest taxi ranks in town. The team found two women who were not afraid to speak to them.

Noma (the soil seller) mentioned that she also ate the soil and she bought  it from a merchandiser whose name she did not want to mention. According to the vendors, the supplier sold the soil at R80.00 a box that can be estimated to be a size of a box that comes with bananas.

“I sell one packet for R2.00” said Noma, “The soil is the best selling of all the goods on my stock and it is bought by women from the ages of 13 to 60 years old“ she added. She knew about the dangers of eating the soil as she herself is infertile because of it, but she still sold it because she was unemployed and wanted to provide for her children and her family back in Maputo.

Australia, the second vendor who was  a bit older than Noma said that she was aware that the soil might cause constipation but not aware of the severe dangers of eating the soil.

Both Australia and Noma found people selling the soil and they also decided to join the others as they saw how many people bought it.

“There are two types of this soil, one is brown and the other is cream white” said Australia, “they taste different and we sometimes use the sun as the toaster of the soil to give it the crunchy taste in your mouth” she further explained. She also mentioned that more adults  then youth bought the soil.

The women saw no need to quit selling the soil because of the profit and also mentioned that some women tell them that it is good for temporarily healing ulcers so why would they quit if some people are getting helped.    

What the clinic sister said.

The last team went to the Nokuthela Ngwenya Community Health Care Center in Kwa Thema. Sabatini spoke to Sister Nhleko. Sister Nhleko was very keen to talk about the problem even though she was busy. According to Sister Nhleko the largest group to eat the soil where pregnant women. The visible symtom was low haemoglobin (combination of plasma and red blood cell volumes) in their blood. She also explained that the common sickness of low HB is low blood pressure. She said women who were seriously affected where referred to Pholosong Hospital.

The team went to Pholosong the following day. Nurses confirmed that the hospital did admit people who were eating the soil. Since low blood pressure is the most common sickness, the Sisters explained that the disease is related to anaemia and it lead to excessive loss of blood during labour. Some patients do not make it through. ” The hospital tries by all means to resuscitate by transfusing the patients. The ratio of mortality is 1 person dies in 7 people” said Sister Smangele (ward 9 Sister in charge).

Sister Marubane from the Ante Natal Clinic at Pholosong Hospital explained that pregnant women took oral treatment on a monthly basis and the pills given to balance Haemoglobin are ferrous sulphate. If the patient’s HB is not responding, a Comsofer shot is given 2 times a week to balance the low blood pressure. If the patient is not responding in the 3rd trimester she is  to be transfused and the worst case scenario is when her blood type is not available at the moment, the patient could die.   

“Because the soil has chemicals that can pass through the placenta, the development of the child gets disturbed as the mother is ingesting something she should not” explained Sister Mdhladhla (Advance Midwife).

There was a  recent case of a deformed baby. A boy was born with his legs combined, he was like a mermaid, and the baby was referred to Charlotte Magxeke Hospital. She also explained that some children are born with half hands and leg, some with no cartilage and some are born with their brains exposed from the skull. Deformed children are

also transferred to Charlotte Magxeke (Johanesburg General) and Chris Hani (Baragwanath)

Hospitals.      

Sister Marubane said that there is no awareness campaign about the dangers of eating the soil. She did not know about the chemicals that were contained in the soil, she also didn’t know that the soil was from the tailings dam. She said that the only thing they do to raise awareness about this is by telling pregnant women to stop eating the soil as it is a result of PICA (cravings during pregnancy and in compulsive appetite).

What the experts say

We spoke to David van Wyk , the Bench Marks senior reseacher in mining and he explained what he thought the dangers were. “Eating the soil is bad for the human body because the tailings dam contain hazardous chemicals like arsenic, cyanide, silver, copper, strontium, uranium, cadmium amongst others. Strontium, cadmium and uranium are all radio-active and they can give a person bone cancer, stomach cancer, lung cancer etc. Radio-active materials can also mess up DNA codes causing pregnant women to have deformed children. Arsenic is poisonous and gives you eczema and skin lesions. Both cyanide and arsenic can kill you. There is also lead which destroys your brain and mercury which will also eat your brain.”

Our Conclusions

This is a serious matter and the authorities are doing nothing about it. Mines did not fence the area and have no security at the dumps.This shows negligence and no care for people.

The root cause of this crisis is the terrible unemployment and poverty people live in. People wll sell anyting for money. Because most people from the community cannot afford to consult the doctors for sicknesses, they tend to take advice that is given from around the corner because it is cheaper for them and they will not have to stand in long queues at clinics and public hospitals.

EEO’s next move

EEO’s next move is to launch an awareness campaign to persuade people not to eat the soil It will also speak to local government to stop the sale of  soil on the streets.

Mining companies do not care about people’s health; they are in it for money.The companies who abanoned the mines must be forced to shut down the mines properly. The Chamber of mines should stop saying that they do not know the owners of abandoned mines because lives are in danger and they have to take responsibility of the damage caused in the communities. We are concerned that the death of poor people  is seen as normal.

By the EEO research Team

Sabatini Motloung, Meshack Mbangula, Qedusizi Masina, Tebogo Motene, Vuyelwa Cindi, Sandile Nombeni, Gugu Nkabinde, Mandla Jwili, Ayanda Baloyi, MApule KAmodi, Steven Nkabinde, Zethu Diko, Mpho Mthembu, Thabo Mogafe and Molly Mbangula