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Toxic Taps

Arsenic in water stirs cancer fears in Vojvodina and its neighbourhood.

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Almost a million people in Serbia, Croatia and Hungary are exposed to carcinogenic drinking water with arsenic levels above the legal limit, the investigation of Miloš Stanić reveals.

They always knew there was something funny about the water. In Komletinci, a village in eastern Croatia a stone’s throw from the Serbian border, it gurgles from the tap with a whiff of ammonia. Its colour varies from pale yellow to reddish brown. It tastes like rust. However unpalatable, few people thought to doubt its safety. For 28 years, since the construction of a local plant to supply homes with treated groundwater, villagers have been holding their noses and drinking it. But that started to change in 2014 after an information-technology engineer named Mirko Matijašević stumbled across analysis of water samples on the website of the regional public water utility in the nearby city of Vinkovci. The test results showed arsenic levels 13 times the legal limit.

Matijašević, 55, had no idea at the time that arsenic in groundwater is a proven carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization, WHO. People who are exposed to it over many years have a greater chance of getting skin, lung and urinary tract cancers, numerous studies show. But he had read enough murder mysteries to know arsenic is a poison. “I think money is the reason the local government isn’t talking about this analysis, since this water that is unfit for drinking shouldn’t be sold for these ‘Zagreb’ [expensive] prices,” he wrote on his blog about daily happenings in Komletinci, where a tamburitza folk concert usually qualifies as big news. He uploaded a screengrab of the analysis and pressed publish. Reaction to his blog post in the village of 1,600 was initially dismissive, Matijašević recalled.

“The water company in Vinkovci is where the ruling party [the Croatian Democratic Union] employs their people, so any negative article is considered an attack on them,” he said. “And when you attack the ruling party, you’re not considered a good citizen.” But Matijašević’s discovery got some people thinking. Mirjam Bešlić, a 28-year-old mother of two, travelled 280 kilometres to Zagreb to have a 12-centimetre sample of her hair tested at the Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health. The tests showed arsenic levels of more than three times the normal amount for an adult woman. “I haven’t had problems up to now, but my doctor told me I’ve been exposed for a long time and the risk of getting cancer is bigger,” she said. When local authorities finally declared Komletinci’s water supply unfit to drink last April, after local media picked up the story, anxiety turned to anger. “I’d prosecute all former water company directors and mayors,” said Ivan Miljak, 60, a retired waiter who was lining up with other villagers to fill plastic bottles from a cistern provided by the municipality near the main square. “They all knew about it and kept it a secret to serve their own interests. I say we should be exempt from paying water bills for the next 28 years. The whole village should file a lawsuit for damaging our health.”

Photo © Aleksandar Latas

Last May, Josip Šarić, a member of the board of directors of the local water utility between 1997 and 2007, won a fourth term as mayor of the municipality of Otok, of which Komletinci is a part. His office did not respond to emailed questions about how long the municipality had known about the excessive arsenic levels and what it is doing to clean up supplies. Nobody was available for comment from the local water utility. Komletinci is just one of scores of communities on the edge of the Balkans where pipes gush with arsenic-tainted water above the legal limit, the investigation reveals. Around 923,000 people are exposed to carcinogenic water from public networks across a vast lowland spanning eastern Croatia, northern Serbia and southern Hungary, the investigation showed.

Thousands more in western Romania who drink from their own wells may also be at risk. All four countries prescribe maximum arsenic levels of 10 micrograms per litre, µg/L. That is the threshold recommended by the WHO, set by EU law and adopted by many non-EU countries including Serbia.

But we discovered dozens of cities, towns and villages where arsenic levels dwarf that amount, despite national commitments to clean up water supplies. Readings in one Serbian town, Novi Bečej, reached 27 times the legal limit. Serbia’s autonomous Vojvodina province has by far the biggest problem, with more than 630,000 people reliant on carcinogenic tap water. Around 173,000 people in Croatia and 100,000 in Hungary are exposed to arsenic values above the limit. From neglecting to inform communities of risks to bungling opportunities to fix water supplies, the investigation lays bare the failure of authorities to protect public health and meet European targets in economies where safe water is still a luxury.

Crisis in Vojvodina

Five million years ago, a shallow sea covered an area known as the Pannonian Basin, stretching over parts of modern Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Romania. By the time it dried out, the sea had deposited sediment several kilometres thick. Today, communities across the basin get their drinking water from bores drilled deep into that sediment, which is high in inorganic arsenic resulting from the decomposition of minerals and ores.

Unlike organic arsenic, often found in fish, research shows the inorganic variety accumulates in the body over time and can be deadly. Decades of studies on exposure to arsenic in drinking water worldwide have found links between bladder, kidney, liver and lung cancers. Toxicologists say it also harms the cardiovascular system.

“Of course people should be concerned, because arsenic has a long-term effect“

–  Greenpeace toxicologist Gergely Simon

 

No specific research exists on how arsenic has affected health in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, the part of the country that lies on the Pannonian Basin sweeping north from the Danube river. There are likewise no studies for eastern Croatia. But a 2012 study in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, conducted under the EU Arsenic Health Risk Assessment and Molecular Epidemiology programme led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found strong evidence of an association between long-term, low-level exposure to arsenic in drinking water and Basal Cell Carcinoma, the most frequent form of skin cancer. That was true even at levels moderately above the 10 µg/L legal limit. Local media in Hungary have since reported that 300 deaths in the country each year are linked to long-term exposure to arsenic-tainted drinking water. Reports cited research from Hungary’s National Public Health and Medical Officer Service, ANTSZ.

Martha Varga, director of the water department at the Public Health Institute, which is a part of ANTSZ, declined to confirm the figure. But Gergely Simon, a toxicologist at environmental group Greenpeace in Budapest, said there was cause for alarm. “Of course people should be concerned, because arsenic has a long-term effect,” he told us. “Obviously, many deaths will still occur due to arsenic exposure.”

In Serbia, we mapped arsenic levels higher than 10 µg/L across the whole of Vojvodina province, using data obtained through 41 freedom-of-information requests to local water companies and offices of public health. The data was collected between January and October 2017. The investigation revealed that 95 cities, towns and villages in Vojvodina — with a combined population of 630,000 — are in the danger zone. They are all served by water plants lacking the technology to filter arsenic from groundwater.

Water is safe to drink in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina and Serbia’s second-largest city. But the central city of Zrenjanin, population 77,000, is among the worst hotspots, with arsenic readings up to 194 µg/L over the past year. Subotica, a city of 106,000 near the Hungarian border, has levels up to 99 µg/L in places, although the local public health office says 80 per cent of residents have clean water thanks to a purification plant built in 1991. The Vojvodina provincial inspectorate for water safety did not respond to questions about which authorities have or have not banned drinking water. The most alarming results came from the central Vojvodina town of Novi Bečej, where 13,100 people are exposed to water with arsenic levels up to 273 µg/L.

Although that is more than 27 times the legal limit, authorities have not issued a ban on drinking tap water. “The water was proclaimed ‘technical water’ 10 years ago,” said Mayor Sasa Maksimović, meaning that it is only deemed suitable for industrial use. But few residents interviewed knew it was dangerous to drink, and the website of the local water utility, Komunalac, makes no mention of any risks. Komunalac did not respond to questions. “Most people, certainly 90 per cent, drink water from the tap and that’s how it’s going to be as long as an official statement banning the water is not issued,” said Nevena Subotić, an opposition member of Novi Bečej’s parliament.

Nemanja Vasković, owner of a bar and restaurant on the bank of the Tisa river in Novi Bečej, buys bottled water for his family, but only because he detests the tap water’s yellow tint and off-putting smell. Some locals describe it as “pond-like”. “I don’t know how high arsenic levels are, but I know that water is bad,” Vasković said. He estimated that he pays at least 30 euros a month for bottled water. The average monthly net wage in Novi Bečej last year was around 283 euros, according to Serbia’s Department for Statistics. “I’d reckon that 75 per cent of people in Novi Becej can’t afford bottled water,” Vasković said.

Photo © Nenad Mihajlović
A glass of clear bottled water makes a stark contrast with yellow tap water in the Serbian town of Kikinda. Photo © Nenad Mihajlović

Crumbling infrastructure

Antiquated plumbing compounds Novi Bečej’s water worries. According to Mayor Maksimović, 60 per cent of the town’s pipes are made of asbestos, another known carcinogen. Meanwhile, the pipes are so old that the town loses up to 40 per cent of its water through leaks, he said. “Local authorities are trying to find solutions but right now we don’t have the capacity to build a purification plant and our first priority is pipeline reconstruction,” he told us in August. Maksimović estimated that new pipes would cost two to three million euros. In early February 2018, Novi Bečej got a grant of 967,000 euros from the Vojvodina provincial government’s Capital Investment Directorate to start building a purification plant. Maksimović told local media the first of three construction phases would be finished by spring 2019, though he did not say when the plant would be completed.

The Price of Clean Water

Projects to flush arsenic out of groundwater are a boon to public health but a drain on public finances. Local authorities typically pass on the costs of purifying drinking water to consumers in the form of higher monthly bills, causing some people to put their health on the line by relying on their own wells, health experts say.

According to Greenpeace toxicologist Gergely Simon, that is exactly what happened in rural parts of Hungary after purification programmes pushed up utility charges. “The wells are not registered, and since groundwater is polluted with arsenic in central, southern and eastern parts [of Hungary], they’re drinking water with arsenic,” he said. In Serbia’s Vojvodina province, residents of the city of Zrenjanin are waiting to see what will happen to utility bills when a newly built purification plant starts operating.

According to a contract between the city and the Italian company that built the facility, published on the local water company’s website, purification will add 0.28 euros per cubic metre of water to existing costs. While consumers will bear the brunt of this extra cost, Zrenjanin Mayor Cedomir Janjić said in January that water bills would not be any higher than they are in Belgrade or Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina. The average monthly wage in Zrenjanin was 371 euros last year, according to Serbia’s Department for Statistics. The average monthly wage in Novi Sad was 458 euros and in Belgrade it was 501 euros.

Near the Romanian border in western Vojvodina, the city of Kikinda is a magnet for tourists in winter. They come to photograph long-eared owls nesting in the hackberry and pine trees that line Kikinda’s broad avenues. Many are shocked when they see the local tap water.

“The water is dark and it smells like crap and ammonia,” said Jelena Terzin, 39, a former journalist whose office was in the same building as the city’s main hotel. “When tourists come, they ask if it’s safe to wash your face and brush your teeth.” Arsenic levels in the city of just under 40,000 were more than twice the legal limit in 2016, according to the most recent data available. Authorities have not issued a drinking ban, although they have installed a so-called eco pipe in the town centre to allow residents to fill up bottles with clean water.

“This office unequivocally, in every single report on water that is not hygienically correct, says that water is hygienically incorrect,” said Sanja Brusin Belos, chief of hygiene and human ecology at Kikinda’s office of public health. Last May, the city signed a contract for a six-million-euro loan from Germany’s state-owned development bank, KfW, to build a purification plant. It is due to start operating in 2019. The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about Kikinda’s water supply or specifics of the new facility.

The Kikinda plant is one of very few projects across Vojvodina to tackle the arsenic problem. Officials in the provincial government, including Vuk Radojevic, secretary for agriculture, water management and forestry, declined interview requests and did not reply to emailed questions. Among the questions were inquiries about the provincial government’s investment in water purification.

Our investigation showed that only one major plant equipped to remove arsenic has been built in Vojvodina during the past five years, in the city of Zrenjanin. Delays dogged the joint project by two water purification companies, Zillo from Italy and Synertech from Serbia. The work had been scheduled for completion at the end of 2015. Work stalled when the city failed to guarantee to pay the 5.6 million euros it will cost to purify the water supply over the next three years. Eventually, Serbia’s central government stepped in with a guarantee.

Nenad Obradović, general manager of Synertech and overseer of the project, said in January — almost six months after the factory was completed — that the provincial sanitary inspectorate had yet to issue a permit for it to operate. He added that analysis showed that water supplied by the plant was perfectly clean. The reason for the lack of a permit, he said, was a law preventing privately owned companies from distributing drinking water to the public. Visiting Zrenjanin in late January, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said the town would need to take over the plant from the private developers to get around the problem, although it was unclear how long that would take. Ninety kilometres away in the northeastern town of Vršac, workers completed a shiny new purification plant in January worth six million euros, but Vršac does not have an arsenic problem and the plant is designed to address other issues with the water supply.

In October, the northern city of Subotica announced it had secured 5.5 million euros in financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to build a water treatment plant to treat arsenic. It is due to be completed in October 2019, according to local media.

Božo Dalmacija, chair of the Department of Chemical Technology and Environmental Protection at the University of Novi Sad, said one way to fix Vojvodina’s water supply would be to build “microsystems” of small purification plants in every municipality. “Something like that would cost up to 700 million euros for the whole of Vojvodina,” he said. “We can emphasise water problems in Chapter 27 negotiations with the EU and compete for EU funds.” Serbia is a candidate to join the EU and Chapter 27 is the part of EU accession negotiations dealing with the environment, including water quality. The country already has access to pre-accession EU funds, with 160 million euros allocated to tackling environmental problems until 2020.

Photo © Nenad Mihajlović

Kikinda resident Jasminka Popov drinks from a public ‘eco pipe’ supplying clean water.

–  Photo © Nenad Mihajlović

EU deadlines

Croatia, the European Union’s newest member, has until 2019 to comply with EU rules limiting arsenic levels to 10 µg/L or lower. The investigation shows it has a long way to go. Data obtained from Croatia’s Institute for Public Health revealed that 173,000 people in 13 towns and villages in the west relied on water supplies with readings above the legal limit in 2016. Arsenic hotspots included the towns of Đakovo, Garešnica and Čepin, with respective populations of 28,000, 11,600 and 11,300.

“The problem of arsenic in drinking water in eastern Croatia should be looked at in the context of local water companies,” a representative from the Institute for Public Health said in an email. “Most of these local companies had problems with high arsenic values, which have not been solved because local communities usually don’t have extra funds, not even for minimum system maintenance let alone for building water purification plants.” For the period 2007-2020, Croatia has received 225 million euros in EU grants for drinking water projects, according to a European Commission spokesperson. Despite the grants, the Institute for Public Health said municipalities could not afford to finance regular maintenance of water supplies let alone construction of new purification plants.

More Harm than Good?

In 2014, mayors from 25 villages in southern Hungary gathered in the picturesque town of Baja, 30 kilometres from the Serbian border, to prepare a joint bid for EU funds to clean up water supplies. Three years later, 20 million euros of EU money has gone into construction of a water purification plant in Baja serving the 25 communities. But locals say the project has done more harm than good. The shiny new plant completed in 2016 pumps out clean drinking water, but antiquated plumbing systems in homes actually make the water quality worse, they say.

“Pipes are 35 to 50 years old,” says Miklos Varhalmi, a retired engineer in Baja with a doctorate in national security. He was one of the first to question the effectiveness of the project. “As they didn’t clean the pipes from inside, this new water with a lot of oxygen in it started to wash out all the dirt from the pipes. In different parts of town, water is bluish, brown and yellow now.” Varhalmi said residents were forced to buy bottled water, which costs around 30 euros a month if they buy three litres a day. The average monthly wage after taxes was around 651 euros last year, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. Varhalmi wants to prepare a class-action lawsuit for more than 16.5 million euros in compensation, the amount he says residents have spent on bottled water since the project started flushing impurities from pipes. Both the mayor of Baja and the director of the local water company declined interview requests.

Neighbouring Hungary has twice missed EU deadlines to bring arsenic levels down to the legal limit, in 2009 and 2012. But Martha Varga, director of the water department at the Public Health Institute in Budapest, said a national programme to improve water quality had made dramatic gains in the country of 10 million. She said around 100,000 people in 30 municipalities rely on water with arsenic levels above the legal limit, compared with almost half a million before Hungary joined the EU in 2004. “Most of these [levels] are below 20 [µg/L], some of them 20-40 at the highest,” she said. “But nobody is obliged to drink water containing arsenic because there are alternate water supplies in every municipality. We have continuous communications campaigns.”

We were unable to map arsenic readings for specific Hungarian municipalities due to a lack of data. Requests for information from the interior ministry and General Directorate of Water Management went unanswered, including questions on how many purification plants have been built with EU funds. Hungary’s share of EU grants for drinking water projects amounts to 663 million euros between 2000 and 2020, according to a European Commission spokesperson.

In Romania, research conducted in the mid-1990s found that around 45,000 people were exposed to arsenic levels higher than 10 µg/L. Călin Baciu, a professor at the Faculty of Environmental Science and Engineering at Babes-Bolyai University in the northwest city of Cluj-Napoca, contributed to the research. He said he did not know of any place with high arsenic levels in tap water today. “The high arsenic water is coming from the medium-depth aquifer (300-400 m) that is exploited by artesian wells, but these are not connected to the distribution network,” he wrote in an email. Back across the Serbian border in Vojvodina, the province’s failure to clean up water networks leaves a bitter taste. In Novi Bečej, some people joke that the local water company takes better care of the town’s flowers than its human residents.

“It’s a vicious circle and we’re all waiting for a saviour to come along“

–  Nevena Subotić, a politician in Novi Bečej

 

When a heatwave nicknamed Lucifer hit Europe last August, blasting Novi Bečej with its hottest temperatures in 130 years, employees of the utility kept the petunias along the main promenade alive through careful daily watering. “Everyone’s hands are tied,” said Nevena Subotić, the opposition member of parliament who criticised the government for not issuing a ban on drinking tap water. “Citizens can’t buy water, and none of the local governments can alone finance building of the expensive plants. It’s a vicious circle and we’re all waiting for a saviour to come along.”

First published on 20 March 2018 on Balkaninsight.com.

This text is protected by copyright: © Miloš Stanić. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Jelena Terzin, a resident of the Serbian town of Kikinda, fills a glass with yellowish water.
Photo: © Nenad Mihajlović


This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.