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Mine denies link to flesh-eating disease
From the ABC, The World Today – Thursday, 1 March , 2007 12:38:00
Reporter: Danielle Parry
ELIZABETH JACKSON: The owners of the Northern Territory’s McArthur River Mine is on the Gulf of Carpentaria say there’s no evidence to connect their zinc operation with a rare flesh eating disease that’s killed four people in the area in the past six years.
Two tropical disease experts have published an article in the British Medical Journal drawing a potential link between high levels of heavy metals in the region’s waterways and elevated levels of flesh eating bacteria.
All of those who died had been either fishing or swimming in the local waterways.
But Northern Territory Health authorities say more research is needed to establish if there’s a definitive link between pollution and the infection rate.
Danielle Parry reports from Darwin
DANIELLE PARRY: The McArthur River zinc and lead mine on the Gulf of Carpentaria is one of the most controversial in the Northern Territory.
It recently won approval from the Territory and Federal Governments to expand its operations, requiring the diversion of five and a half kilometres of the adjacent McArthur River.
Now an article in a British Medical Journal has detailed four cases of a rare flesh eating disease that’s hit people who’ve come into contact with waterways in the McArthur River area since 2000.
It includes graphic images of blackened limbs killed by the bacteria that occurs naturally in tropical waters.
The report was co-authored by tropical disease expert Dr Bart Currie and says two men died and another Victorian man had his leg amputated after fishing in the region.
A 19-year-old woman also died 24 hours after going swimming.
The Territory’s Chief Health Officer, Doctor Tarun Weeramanthri says another person also died from the disease after the report was published.
The article says zinc and lead levels downstream from the mine are twice what they are upstream and it’s possible the metals could increase the risk of human infection.
But Doctor Weeramanthri says it’s too early to say whether there’s a definitive link between the infection rate and elevated heavy metal levels in the area.
TARUN WEERAMANTHRI: There’s some detail in the report about possible levels of heavy metal in the water but they’re actually not taken from the estuary areas where the vibrio infections occurred.
So there’s a speculative link made between the environmental conditions in the region and the vibrio infections but essentially it’s too early to tell.
DANIELLE PARRY: Dianne McDougall is an expert from the University of New South Wales.
She says until now the disease has been linked with eating seafood containing the bacteria but more work is needed to establish whether there’s a connection between the disease and open wounds coming into contact with contaminated water.
DIANNE MCDOUGALL: There has been no proven link between high levels of metals in the water and wound infections however. I agree that’s something that needs to be investigated further before we try to make that link. But it is related to the ingestion type infection.
DANIELLE PARRY: The Territory Health Department says it’s already launched a campaign to tell people around the community of Borroloola about the possible risks.
Dr Tarun Weeramanthri says some people have been told they should stay out of the water.
TARUN WEERAMANTHRI: Don’t go in if you’ve got open abrasions or cuts on your legs and cooking all seafood, not eating raw oysters or other shellfish which can also transmit this family of diseases
DANIELLE PARRY: But the head of Borroloola’s Mubuji Aboriginal Resource Centre, Frazer Baker says the first the community knew of the deaths was when they were in the news this morning.
FRAZER BAKER: It’s a shock, it’s not communication what I see, especially health wise.
DANIELLE PARRY: He says the Centre’s managed to get some information off the Internet, but people need to know what’s going on.
FRAZER BAKER: I’ve lived here all me life and you know like, ate the fish out of the river and now the river’s in flood, I mean where is it at the end of the day that, could be one of us you know.
DANIELLE PARRY: McArthur River Mining says the article does not and cannot say there is a link between its mining operations and the Vibrio inflections.
In a statement the company describes the report as highly speculative and containing inaccuracies and says there’s no evidence of heavy metal pollution by the mine.
ELLIZABETH JACKSON: Danielle Parry reporting from Darwin.