Chemical Coastline

by Vanessa Farr

SANOcean Stakeholders’ engagement on chemical contamination of Cape Town’s waterways and oceans

False Bay aerial view ©

False Bay aerial view ©

Over the past few years, beaches, vleis and other recreational water bodies across Cape Town have seen a steady spate of closures resulting not only from poor maintenance of the city’s wastewater treatment plants but the additional pressures put on them by loadshedding, dumping by both industry and citizens, and entrenched service delivery inequality. Our failure to step up systems for managing our water use and the treatment of our wastewater is negatively impacting the health of the City’s inland water and very long coastline. Summing up the size of the problem, Emeritus Professor Leslie Petrik of the Department of Chemistry, University of the Western Cape, says: “Our coastline from Green Point all the way around the Peninsula and including False Bay from Miller’s Point to Rooi Els is contaminated by chemicals from inadequately treated sewage.”

This serious problem is the focus of a long-term study coordinated by the South Africa/Norway Cooperation on Ocean Research (SANOcean), whose scope has included not only persistent organic pollutants (POPs), but the so-called blue economy, climate change, the environment and sustainable energy. At the end of March 2023, scientists from the team called for a high level stakeholder engagement meeting around their research relating to the chemical contamination of Cape Town’s marine environment.

Mother City News article, July 2021

As is often the case when scientists focus on solving difficult problems, the early part of the meeting concentrated on improving collective understanding of some of the elements that are turning our sewage into a toxic soup. These may not be what we immediately imagine: have you ever associated poor water quality with the power of the global medical-industrial complex, in which pharmaceutical companies, while posting vast profits, take no responsibility for the environmental impact of the durable compounds they create in laboratories and make into everyday medicines?

It turns out that a big contributor to the poor health of our oceans is our own poor human health. In a city marked by such extreme inequality as Cape Town, people are not feeling well; and the profit-driven medical system’s response is to prescribe more pharmaceuticals, in bigger doses. This is a significant challenge in itself, but the problem is made even worse because these medications don’t only work within us: they affect our environment once they leave our bodies and enter the sewage system.

Among the different aspects of this challenge are, firstly, that we are consuming much more medicine than we need. One reason is because the pills and potions we take are not always fully bioavailable (readily absorbable in the body): we have to take an excess amount to get an effective dose, which means that a lot of the medicine we take leaves our body unmetabolized — in other words, unchanged by our digestive system. Another reason is that over the counter medication such as painkillers and muscle relaxants are overutilized. Also problematically, some of us are still guilty of flushing our unused medications down the toilet instead of taking them back to the pharmacy. But more than this, pharmaceutical companies do not formulate easily biodegradable medications that could break down after they’ve served their purpose of dosing the human body. Instead, the focus is on prolonging their shelf life, meaning medicines are formulated to be highly stable. As a result, they are extremely persistent — including when they’re discharged into the marine environment. This means that, long after a human used a medicine, its pharmaceutical compounds carry on unchanged, bioaccumulating, or building up in the marine creatures that live in our seas.

SANOcean stakeholders discussed what needs to change in this situation, concluding that, as humans made this problem, humans have to fix it. One solution proposed by research pharmacists is to change the formulation process. Chemists need to consider new drug designs so that pharmaceuticals work better once we ingest them, and then break down, or degrade, quickly and easily after excretion, via a photolysis mechanism which exposes them to sunlight when they move into the sewerage system.

Milnerton, 25 July 2021. ©Jean Tresfon

The problem is not contained to pharmaceuticals. Pesticides and perfluorinated (PFA) compounds formulated by humans are used in fire extinguisher foams, paints, waterproofing, military equipment and non-stick coatings. They, too, do not disappear after we use them, but reappear in unexpected places. They were found by Professor Petrik’s research team among the effluent waters that are discharged into our City’s waterways and ocean after our faeces and urine have passed through our wastewater treatment plants. PFAs are persistent and bioaccumulative compounds with environmental effects so severe they have been added to the Stockholm Convention’s list for elimination. Their overuse and abuse, and the fact of their high stability, means these compounds are severely polluting our marine environment — thus flowing from source to sea and back into our food in a circular loop.

This problem is greatly exacerbated in a city that has not seen its rapid population growth over the last two decades matched by adequate sanitation service provision, resulting in numerous sewage spills and the related contamination of our city’s rivers and coastline with bacteria and numerous toxic chemicals. Moreover, the practice of discharging untreated sewage through the three marine outfalls at Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay has added to the extensive chemical pollution of seawater, sediments, and marine biota detected all around the Peninsula.

IOL article, 13 April 2023

This is not a new problem. Dr Neil Overy explained, using his historical research into the city archives, how the marine sewage outfall at Green Point came about. He described how the proposed engineering “solution” to dealing with the city’s excrement in the late 1890’s was to stick a pipe into the sea to make it disappear! This was never a very effective strategy: the outfall pipe has resulted in significant faecal pollution of the Green Point coastline for over 100 years, while the pipe has kept breaking, and costs more and more to repair. Activists in the community have protested again and again that discharging sewage into the sea is an unhealthy practice — correctly so, because numerous cases of typhoid fever have been reported over the years, and we have plentiful evidence of the lasting damage caused, even at very deep sea levels, by the plethora of modern chemicals we use to address illnesses, fight infections, soothe pain, chase away insects, kill weeds, dye our hair, wash our clothes and dishes, and so forth.

Yet, overlooking more than 100 years of evidence that it is outdated and bad practice, and ignoring ongoing protests against the use of sewage outfalls, in January 2023, the DFFE renewed the City’s discharge licences, enabling it to continue its use of the outfall pipes along the Atlantic seaboard. This amounts to a de facto agreement with the City’s argument that proper treatment is too costly. But for whom? The implication seems to be that it is more expedient to transfer the costs of pollution to the marine environment, the creatures who live in our ocean, and future generations of humans, than taking on a short-term financial burden to fix the problem.

Discussion then turned to the groundbreaking work of Dr Cecilia Ojemaye, who, in her doctoral research at UWC, found numerous synthetic and endocrine disrupting compounds in high concentrations in many different marine creatures such as mussels, sea urchins, limpets and several other benthic organisms, in several seaweed types that live or grow in rock pools along our city’s coastline, and in fish caught in False Bay and its surrounds. Her research concludes that the high concentration of contaminants can only result from excessive human use and discharge from marine outfalls or from wastewater treatment plants that are ill-equipped to degrade these compounds, because they remove only the solid faecal matter and some ammonia from wastewater before its release into our rivers, surf zones or estuaries.

Ojemaye’s findings were echoed in a smaller research project conducted by Amy Beukes, a graduate in Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town, on ongoing sanitation problems as a result of inadequate sanitation service provision in Hout Bay. She, too, reviewed the history of community protest against the installation of the marine outfall in the 1990s, using archival evidence to demonstrate a decades-old pattern of City governance and engineering decision-making that ignores community efforts to prevent sewage pollution of the marine environment, which is still expected to absorb megalitres of raw sewage discharged daily into the bay. Beukes found high levels of diverse pharmaceuticals in mussels sampled more than a kilometre away from the outfall discharge point. In her presentation, University of Pretoria PhD candidate Stephanie Dreyer showed that the toxic soup reaches as far as Robben Island.

Pollution sites Cape Peninsula

These three research studies document the widespread dispersal of chemical contaminants, showing the creation of a large sacrifice zone around the Peninsula — an area whose ecological well-being is being knowingly damaged by constant discharges of inadequately, or entirely untreated sewage. The City managers argue that this is common practice around the world, but ignore the fact that in many places effluent is treated to a higher level than in Cape Town. At the same time, the impact of chemicals is only recently being acknowledged, and we have not yet begun to look for practical solutions that can be implemented right away.

Professor Jo Barnes, Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, then offered her data on the very high counts of faecal bacteria she found along our beaches and rivers, and in stormwater drains, showing high sewage related contamination. Alarmingly, she found that most bacteria sampled were resistant to many of the usual antibiotics used to prevent infections, and infections resulting from them would be extremely difficult to treat. Again, Barnes concluded that their high concentration is a direct result of the discharge practices used at overwhelmed sewage treatment plants. Echoing the sentiments of other researchers, Barnes expressed concern about a persistent culture of blame in the city’s management team, which accuses poor communities of causing poor sanitation when the real issue is severely inadequate sanitation and poor waste collection in many areas of the city that results, among other problems, in blocked drains.

Professor Silvia Romero from Argentina showed how satellite imagery has successfully been used to read sea temperatures and track phytoplankton blooms (better known in South Africa as red tides or algal blooms). UWC’s Justin John Moser discussed how, with Romero’s support, he had similarly imaged and measured the degree of algal bloom he found associated with samples of seawater and sediments in False Bay. His data also show that seawater at deep sea levels, and underwater sediments obtained far from shore in False Bay, were highly contaminated by toxic chemical compounds.

Overall, SANOcean-supported studies paint a sorry picture of gross chemical contamination from inadequately treated sewage all around the Peninsula from Green Point to deep into False Bay, from Miller’s Point to Rooi Els.

False Bay from Simons Town ©Jacqueline van Meygaarden

The team then turned their attention to the research of UCT Masters student Kevin Dornbrack, who detailed the lively chemical journey attached to the pesticide, atrazine — a toxin detected in most of the samples analysed at all sampling points around the Peninsula — from the point of manufacture to the point of use, and thereafter. Atrazine is ranked as one of the most hazardous pesticides on earth, and has been banned by the European Union for its injurious impacts on human and non-human life, yet there is no regulation preventing its use in South Africa. Once it has been discharged as a pesticide, atrazine becomes an indiscriminate killer: it enters water bodies, and on its journey to the sea, exerts slow violence on every living species that comes into contact with it. Dornbrack expressed particular concern for those who are tasked in their daily work to disperse this chemical without adequate protection or knowledge of its hazards, which are gendered (breast cancer in women; and lower sperm count and increased prostate cancer in men), racialised, and most harmful to the farm workers who handle it.

This presentation was followed by an in-depth discussion led by scientists in Comparative Spermatology at UWC, Dr Liana Maree, Dr Shannen Keyser and Monique Bennet, who presented further alarming details of how sperm from humans, penguins and sea creatures such as oysters, which broadcast their sperm, could be affected by the presence of toxic chemical compounds even at low levels of exposure. The researchers spoke of how recent decades have seen a steep reduction in sperm motility (speed and ability to move) and fertility, including in human males. Cumulatively, the survival of entire species may be at risk.

Caroline Marx of #RethinktheStink then presented details of the campaign to get city officials to improve the quality of effluent from the Potsdam wastewater treatment plant that is destroying the ecology of the Milnerton Lagoon. Based on her many years of experience of opposing official denial of the scale of the problem, she called for greater networking and solidarity across the city, and gave pointers on how communities could join hands with #rethinkthestink to share their problems and learn more effective strategies for engaging with City managers and structures.

On a positive note, the day’s work ended with a presentation on Water Stories. Designed by Mycelium Media Colab in association with Environmental Nano Sciences in the Department of Chemistry at University of the Western Cape and Environmental Humanities South at University of Cape Town, one of the purposes of Water Stories is to help citizens not only to understand the chemical flows that move through our bodies, our water cycles, and back into our bodies through our food, but to become more active in protecting the ecologies on which our lives and wellbeing depend.