An assessment of the water quality of the Baynespruit River and its linkages to the health of the Sobantu community.
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Worldwide, water quality degradation is rife. Rivers are amongst the most susceptible water bodies to this reality. In South Africa, the use of polluted river water for activities such as crop irrigation, washing clothes and recreation, is a common practice in many rural and urban communities. The Baynespruit River, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is a typical example as it serves as a vital water source to the Sobantu community. There have been numerous reports of extremely poor water quality in this river and suggestions that this may pose health risks to the community. Thus, the aim of this study was to assess the water quality of the Baynespruit River and its linkages to the health of the Sobantu community. This was achieved through analyses of river water quality, river sediment, soil and crop samples, as well as an investigation of the pathways through which community members are exposed to the polluted river and finally, an analysis of urine from a sample of volunteers who are regularly exposed to the river water. The water quality assessment considered pH, electrical conductivity, As, Cd, Cu, Hg, Pb, Zn and E.coli, while the analysis of river sediment comprised of 23 elements including the aforementioned heavy metals. Using microwave acid digestion (EPA 3052) and Inductively Coupled Plasma – Optical Emission Spectrometry (ICP-OES), soil and crop samples from farming sites in Sobantu were analysed for Cd, Cr, Cu, Pb and Zn, and compared against the South African Water Quality Guidelines for Crop Irrigation. These results showed that E.coli contamination was high, there were extremely low concentrations of the heavy metals apart from infrequent elevated detections of Cu and Pb, as well as infrequent occurrences of acidic water. While the heavy metal concentrations of surface water were low, the sediment analysis suggested elevated concentrations of As, Cd, Cr, Cu, Ni, Pb, Zn, Fe, Mn and Ag. Analyses of soils and irrigated crops showed concentrations of heavy metals in excess of national and international guidelines, respectively. It is suggested that these soil and crop results indicate historical flooding events, which mobilized heavy metals in the river sediments and transferred them onto the floodplain where the farming sites are located. Furthermore, long-term irrigation with low concentrations of heavy metals may have also resulted in the build-up of these contaminants in the soil and eventually the crops. A workshop was held in the Sobantu community which included a questionnaire and separate open-ended conversations conducted with various community members, in order to determine the exposure pathways to the river and the associated health issues of participants. The questionnaire and open-ended conversations indicated that the most common exposure pathways to the river included using river water for crop irrigation, consuming irrigated crops, washing clothes and children swimming in the river. The questionnaire and open-ended conversations also highlighted many cases of skin rashes, as a result of being in direct contact with river water, with one reported case of diarrhoea. The confirmation of the presence of heavy metals in the Baynespruit River and its surrounding environment gave rise to a urine analysis, which used microwave digestion and ICP-OES to determine whether community members who volunteered for the study incurred heavy metal toxicities. However, the analysis did not show any severe cases of heavy metal toxicities to exposed volunteers and the high levels of Pb noted could not be attributed to exposure to the Baynespruit River and/or its surrounding environments, since similar levels of Pb were found in the control volunteers. It was therefore unclear as to whether the health of the exposed people of Sobantu was compromised by heavy metal toxicities. The persistent mention of skin rashes in the questionnaire and open-ended conversations suggests that water-related health issues in the community require further investigation. It was concluded overall that the water quality of the Baynespruit River is severely degraded however, a clear link between this poor water quality and the perceived health issues in the Sobantu community, could not be established. A key recommendation from this study would be for further investigation, i.e. through a detailed health monitoring programme, confirming the health issues that community members have associated with polluted river water.