Lettuce from Vareš contained lead along with vitamins and minerals. The Stavnja River delivered the heavy metal when it flooded this and the neighboring towns.
Although this lettuce has been destroyed, many other plants may contain heavy metals due to the floods across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
The Stavnja and other rivers spilled out of their riverbeds after torrential rains this spring. The river mud left over agricultural land contained in some cases not only lead, but other heavy metals such as mercury, nickel or zinc. Authorities could not examine all the flooded sites, but an analysis of samples of fruit, vegetables and soil confirmed the presence of toxic substances. Food laced with heavy metals can endanger health.
That does not mean everything growing in areas that had been submerged must be destroyed, but some security measures seem to be called for, such as disinfecting the soil, or planting selected cultures. An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) found that such recommendations from the authorities have not reached all citizens hit by floods. Also, there has been no increase in inspections to prevent contaminated fruit and vegetables from finding their way to outdoor markets.
Lead in Lettuce and Strawberries
When the Stavnja River which flows through the ore-rich town of Vareš spilled out at the agricultural estate of the Ahmedovićs it brought along lead and zinc, authorities found when they analyzed soil and plant samples from the Ahmedovićs’the in Dabravine neighborhood. When the Agricultural Institute of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) told them about the lead, they destroyed the lettuce. But, since they have never received the soil analysis results, the family planted new vegetables on the land and ate them.
The FBiH Institute for Agropedology found lead and zinc in soil as well.. The Institute informed representatives of Vareš Municipality and they passed the word to the president of the Dabravine local community, Jasmin Salketić. The Ahmedovićs were not told.
Salketić told CIN that from a conversation with a member of the family he inferred that they had already commissioned a private soil testing, so he thought that they had already had the results.
Saliha Ahmedović said this was not the case: “We have never received the soil test results.” Reporters encountered her in a garden of ripe vegetables that showed no traces of the May floods.
“If we only could know if it was fit to eat, “she said “If one knew, I would have ripped it out, plowed it, put some fertilizer for the soil to air.”
The institute’s officials say that they have informed the municipality’s departments which were supposed to pass the information along to residents. They warn that when lead and zinc are detected in soil, one should not plant lettuce, spinach, cabbage, kale and radish. Peppers, tomato, beans, peas and corn may be planted.
Something similar happened to the Šerif Omerhodžić family from Breza after the Stavnja contaminated their strawberries with lead. They too destroyed the strawberries, but ate the rest of the vegetables and tilled their land afterward as usual, all because they did not receive the results of the analysis.
“They took soil samples and said that they would inform us within three to four days if the soil was contaminated, so that we don’t work it. However, they did not inform us, so probably, nothing was contaminated,” said Almedin Omerhodžić.
After CIN visited, they got in touch with the Agropedology Insitute whose experts told them to destroy their cabbage crop. They did.
Dr. Aida Vilić-Švraka from the FBiH Institute for Public Health said that long-term consumption of lead can cause severe poisoning and paralysis of peripheral nerves, brain damage, psychological problems, even death, depending on how much is consumed.
Arsenic in Soil
In the adjacent canton, the Mlava Creek flooded part of Gromiljak near Kiseljak, arsenic was detected in soil samples here. The test was conducted on three agricultural plots, and an increased level of arsenic was detected in one. Arsenic was not detected in samples of onion, wheat, and potatoes which Kiseljak officials sent to the FBiH Institute for Public Health.
Soil tests were also conducted on the plot belonging to the family of Almasa Japaur. CIN reporters encountered her cultivating radish plants. She was unaware of the Agropedology Institute’s recommendations against planting this vegetable as well as lettuce, spinach, cabbage and kale.
Japaur said that every evening she ate a plate of radishes. “I eat it, it’s very nice.”
Head of the municipality, Mladen Mišurić Ramljak told CIN that area inhabitants were told not to eat vegetables planted in the contaminated areas, but were not given detailed information out of fear of spreading panic. “We are aware of the existence of arsenic, mercury and uranium in the soil. Kiseljak is specific because of that.” However, he said that people have been living in this area for thousands of years: “We play, we saw, we work and no one has been poisoned.”
Amir Čaušević from the FBiH Public Health Institute which tested food samples from the municipality, said , he was not surprised by the test results because plants have a hard time absorbing arsenic, which is why it didn’t show up in some crops.
Dr Vilić-Švraka said that arsenic is a heavy metal which can cause liver cirrhosis and cancer as well as skin and lung cancers after prolonged ingestion. She said FBiH maintains no database or registry of chronic poisoning with heavy metals.
Residents Who Don’t Give a Damn
Higher doses of mercury were detected in the village of Ljubatovići near Maglaja, which was partially submerged in May.. Ivica Vidović told CIN that samples were from his land. However, he does not see this as something terrible. His family eats all vegetables from their garden, even those which have been flooded, and he also gives them to the pigs.
Veterinary expert Velija Katica said that mercury, along with lead, is the most toxic heavy metal for animal health. Ingesting it can cause chronic diseases, often cancer. People may then take in metals when they eat meat or other animal products such as milk.
Esad Bukalo, director of the FBiH Agropedology Institute, said that mercury is troublesome because its source is unknown. His assistant Ejub Trako explained that the rivers bring two types of minerals to the soil: those which originate in nature and are not dangerous for plants and people, and industrially processed minerals, or metals, which can be dangerous. How much metal a plant accumulates depends on the soil and the plant. Wide leaf cultures, such as lettuce, spinach, carrots, and radish, are more prone to accumulating the toxins. Fruits with stones and apples, peppers and tomatoes are more resistant.
Apart from planting recommendations, Agropedology Institute officials have suggested that citizens disinfect soil with chloride products and request additional testing of their food products.
Those recommendations have yet to reach citizens. Due to lack of information, administrative neglect or personal irresponsibility, at least 10 people CIN interviewed said that they ate vegetables from poisoned soil. “We eat everything and we’re still alive,” said Mara Tomić from Ljubatović.
The consequences of eating food products containing heavy metals are not visible right away and can be dangerous for health if they accumulate in the organism, said Dr Vilić-Švraka. “Acute toxicity end more often fatally, but chronic toxicity is much more frequent than acute, which is why they present a much bigger problem.”
No Testing for Mercury in the RS
According to the testing of soil and plants, the citizens of Republika Srpska (RS) have no reason to worry. The authorities have detected nickel at two locations in Šamac and Bijeljina. Officials from the RS Institute for Agro-ecology who did the testing, told the reporters that nickel was of mineral origin and not dangerous for agricultural crops.
However, the RS Institute did not test for arsenic and mercury, said their director Tihomir Predić. “We are not sufficiently equipped to be able to confirm the results.” He explained that they analyzed 204 average samples of soil and plants. In the FBiH an average of 87 samples of soil and 274 samples of plants were tested.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management wrote to CIN that the farmers who “notice visible marks of pollution” should get in touch with the Ministry.
It is difficult to distinguish healthy plants from those polluted with heavy metals. Predić said but farmers can recognize a polluted plant because after tiling his land for years he “knows his plot instinctively.”
Citizens who eat fruit and vegetables from their flooded fields say that they are not sure that those they might buy on the market are safe either. “When I look around, the floods were all around; everywhere was the same; when I buy it on the market, maybe I buy something worse than here,” said Terezija Pecirep from Gromiljak.
CIN found that, goods on the market as well as the street sale of agricultural products are not well controlled. Having talked with at least five agricultural or sanitary inspectors, one gets the impression that there was no increased monitoring after the floods.
Edin Kadić, sanitary inspector in the Lukavac municipality where mercury was located in the village of Sižje, for example, said that the products sold on the markets were not tested after the floods. “People are very sensitive. As soon as you come to ask something from them, they tell you to beat it. People are extremely edgy after the floods.”