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Red Mud's Health Effects

Toxic Spills: Hungarian accident may have fewer long-term health effects than initially feared

by Sarah Everts
February 3, 2011

Credit: Hornyák Dániel
Dust from red mud appears less harmful than urban particulate matter.
Credit: Hornyák Dániel
Dust from red mud appears less harmful than urban particulate matter.

The tragic spill of tailings from a bauxite mine in Hungary last October caused 10 deaths. However, new research suggests that the spill's longer term impacts on human health could be minimal (Environ. Sci. Technol. DOI: 10.1021/es104005r).

The causes of the 10 deaths were drowning or exposure to the highly caustic, pH-13 red mud. After the flood, public health officials worried about people’s exposure to the now-dried alkaline dust coming off the 700,000 m3 of tailings that had spilled into towns and onto agricultural land.

"People involved in the cleanup were afraid because their eyes were irritated and they were coughing," says Mihály Pósfai at the University of Pannonia, in Veszprém, Hungary, who led the new research.

To determine what health risks the dust posed, Pósfai and his colleagues examined the size of the red dust particles, their mineralogical composition, and their toxicological profile. The team concluded that, because of the particles' size, most of them would end up in the upper respiratory tract and not make it as far as the lungs. Once inside, the body can neutralize the alkaline particles, Pósfai adds.

The team concluded that the red mud dust's alkalinity "might pose some problems such as the irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes," but that its size distribution and composition "appears to be less hazardous to human health than urban particulate matter."

Benoit Nemery de Bellevaux, a toxicologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, agrees with the study's conclusion, but still recommends caution: "One should nevertheless remember that a relatively brief inhalation of alkaline dust has led to substantial respiratory damage in some New York firemen and other rescue personnel involved in the 9/11 disaster."


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