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Human health: On corporate (ir-)responsibility and manganese

Should the public tolerate instances of irresponsible behaviour on the part of corporations or companies where the handling of substances that are potentially harmful to human health is concerned? Most people would agree that the obvious answer is NO – especially judging by most of the responses to recent TL-articles on prospects of “fracking” for natural shale gas in the Karoo (or elsewhere), which have mercifully been shelved for the time being (and I hope will be permanently prohibited once all the scientific research about its possible impact on the Karoo has been concluded). And yet, where such activities already exist, it seems to be difficult to oppose such behaviour effectively, that is, to get the offending party to stop its (probably) harmful operations, even when opposition to these have been expressed on several occasions.

I know this is something that is widespread across the globe (as Jared Diamond also documents in Collapse), with many horrifying examples of, for example, oil or gas companies simply ignoring public objections to their (lucrative) operations. In South America, for example, oil extraction has caused untold, and probably irreparable, damage to water sources of indigenous peoples, and even when oil companies have been found guilty of doing so, with hefty fines imposed, lodging an appeal to the verdict results in many years’ postponement of any reparative actions.

With hydraulic fracturing of shale for the extraction of natural gas it is just as bad, as several writers have pointed out. I recently came across an article on the extent of this practice in Pennsylvania in the US, where cases of the contamination of drinking water as a direct result of the use of a variety of toxic chemicals during fracking is shocking, and undeniable, and yet it goes on, for the sake of profit, as usual. Instead of putting as much effort into the development of renewable energy, this — the exploitation of natural gas resources the world over — is the new focus of capitalist endeavours. Given the information about its environmental dangers, the mere fact that fracking can be contemplated in a country as water-stressed as South Africa, boggles the mind — it takes millions of litres of water to extract gas from ONE well, let alone thousands of wells, as have already been drilled in Pennsylvania. Tellingly, according to a recent front page report on shale gas in Time magazine, the State of New York has put fracking operations on hold, pending research into its possible impact on natural resources such as water, and by implication, on human and other living creatures’ health.

As before in another piece I posted on TL, it resurrects the Indigenous American saying: “Only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish has been caught, only when the last tree has been cut down, then only will you realise that money cannot be eaten.” But here I want to be very specific, to illustrate what I mean by the difficulties involved in effectively terminating activities that impinge harmfully on human health.

Some weeks ago, an article by Guy Rogers appeared in a Port Elizabeth newspaper, the Herald, titled “Transnet says it is committed to relocate its manganese operation”. A reasonably reassuring statement, one would think. And yet, on closer inspection, it is highly disturbing, to say the least, that, according to the Transnet spokesperson quoted in the report, Transnet is in the process of converting “an existing air quality permit for the PE manganese terminal into an emissions licence”.

I say this for two reasons. Firstly that, shifting the emphasis from permission regarding “air quality” to permission in terms of “emissions”, is a confession that no euphemistic reading of the bland, unqualified word, “emissions”, could disguise. Is there still a single “responsible” citizen left who would not detect in this an admission to the effect that legal permission is being sought to pollute the environment, more specifically the Nelson Mandela Bay air, near and around the Port Elizabeth harbour area, with a substance that is implicitly acknowledged as being potentially harmful to living beings? I think not.

Secondly, and related to the first reason, it appears to be disingenuous in the extreme for Transnet allegedly to reiterate its earlier verbal promise, to move the terminal by 2016 (ambiguously, I might add: 2016 has suddenly become “2016/2017”), given its awareness of widespread opposition to its manganese operations in the PE harbour area. After all, this opposition is grounded in a legitimate concern, primarily for the health of everyone who is at the receiving end of the manganese pollution — and in Port Elizabeth, given the prevailing winds, this means a lot of people — but secondarily also for the damaging effect of the manganese ore dust on property (buildings, yachts, and what they contain) in the area. (According to friends of mine who are yachtspeople, it is no joke to get rid of the layer of manganese ore dust, spread like a blanket over their yachts, after a manganese loading session when the wind has been blowing in the direction of the yacht basin from the manganese ore dump.)

What Transnet is implicitly indicating with its tardiness, of course, is that it is less concerned about the deleterious effects on health and property than about the financial implications of terminating its operations as soon as possible. One wonders which entity, on whose behalf Transnet (probably to its own substantial profit) is operating the manganese ore terminal, is hovering in the background. I am willing to bet the proverbial farm that it is a mammoth corporation, which abuses its money power in the form of pressure to maintain a lucrative, if demonstrably health-detrimental operation.

I doubt whether it is necessary to elaborate here on the negative effects of excessive manganese absorption on humans. Suffice it to say that, although it is one of the essential trace elements that we ingest through certain foodstuffs (see ), an excess of manganese in the human body causes manganese poisoning, which affects respiratory as well as brain function, shown in symptoms such as forgetfulness and hallucinations. It is said that, in the longer term, exposure to manganese dust could cause Parkinson’s disease, bronchitis, male impotence, and even schizophrenia.

Needless to say, in light of what was said above, it is highly irresponsible, if not downright cynical, of Transnet even to consider applying for the right to extend the manganese ore operations in the PE harbour area. Perhaps the greatest reason for concern on the part of Port Elizabeth inhabitants is the fact that, in the newspaper report referred to, the statement by the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro spokesperson is indicative of an invidiously compromising position. According to this person, the Metro is attempting “to ‘strike a balance’ between its opposition to the present positioning of the ore terminal and its role as adjudicator of the parastatal’s application to renew its lease for the site”.

This seems to me to be a clear case of a conflict of interests: the Metro municipality cannot be the adjudicating authority, and, at the same time, an opponent of maintaining the ore terminal in its present, clearly harmful location. To state that the Metro is trying to “strike a balance”, and “to be objective”, is an expression of wanting to reconcile what is irreconcilable, suggesting hidden, vested interests that conflict with its primary, obligatory opposition to the ore dump. As a friend of mine remarked, it is comparable to the mother of one of the contestants sitting on the panel of adjudicators in a Ms World competition.

To sum up, in the words of the bard, “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark”, and it should be flushed out, lest it (literally!) poison the body politic once again, as it has already done the world over in too many instances to recount here. And invariably, when that happens, the earth gets contaminated and harmed, too. The mind-boggling extent to which that has already happened, and keeps happening, is clearly exposed in the film, The 11th Hour, in the making of which Leonardo di Caprio played a decisive role. For those readers who have not viewed the film, I can strongly recommend it. Di Caprio has shown great courage making this film, and taking a stand against the current economic system’s complicity in the ongoing destruction of the earth. As many of the scientists interviewed in the film emphasize, there is only ONE earth — quite apart from undermining the health of people today, those who harm the earth irreparably will justly be regarded as criminals by future generations.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.