The Mesogeia plain is contaminated by carcinogenic chromium that has infiltrated the area’s water table

Large quantities of carcinogenic chromium have been found in the water table of the Mesogeia plain near the town of Koropi. According to Professor Spyros Lekkas of Athens University, these traces have been discovered at the deepest levels of the water table, meaning that they could pollute dozens of wells from Stavros in Aghia Paraskevi to Glyka Nera near Paeania to Markopoulo, Kalyvia and Keratea, and even as far as the beaches of the Saronic coast. It all began when local residents suddenly noticed inexplicable problems with animals, such as sheep dying after drinking water. Samples from three wells southeast of Koropi, on the fringe of the industrial zone, were sent for analysis to Athens University’s environmental chemistry laboratory. The results, published on February 15, caused grave concern. The first well produced readings of 143 micrograms of hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)] per liter and 166 micrograms of complete chromium per liter, while in the second well 10.5 micrograms/liter of hexavalent chromium was found and 28.2 micrograms/liter of complete chromium, or Cr(III). In the third well, Cr(VI) was found in insufficient concentrations to be traced, while the complete chromium was also very low, at just 0.35 micrograms/l. The EU has set the maximum limit for complete chromium levels in the water at 50 micrograms/l. For hexavalent chromium there is no permissible quantity, since even tiny amounts are considered extremely dangerous. So the discovery of over three times the maximum permissible amount in one of the wells – nearly all of it Cr(VI), and a considerable amount also in the second well – was clearly a cause for serious concern. Particularly toxic Chromium (Cr) is a metallic element used in metallurgy, for the production of fire-resistant materials, and in the chemical industry. It is not dangerous in all its forms. Cr(III), for example, the most stable form, occurs naturally in the environment and is an essential nutrient that helps the human body use insulin. But hexavalent chromium is nearly always the result of industrial activity and is particularly toxic. Constantine Methenitis, an associate professor of chemistry at Athens University, emphasized that leakages of liquid waste from industry increase the levels of Cr(VI) in groundwater or surface water. It also comes from tanneries, textile industries and paint factories. Because of its great toxicity, waste containing Cr(VI) must undergo conversion to Cr(III) before being released into the environment, said Methenitis. The human body absorbs chromium via food or drinking water or simply by inhaling air. «Cr(VI) is toxic and carcinogenic,» said Methenitis. «Inhalation of air containing high levels of hexavalent chromium can, depending on the amounts in the atmosphere, cause irritation to the nose, a runny nose and ulcers and holes in the nasal septum. It can damage kidneys and the liver and even lead to death.» The World Health Organization and the US Health Department have listed Cr(VI) as a carcinogen. Things are actually worse than they seem, according to Lekkas, because the above samples were taken at depths of about 100 meters, that is at sea level, and show that the deeper levels of the water table all over the Mesogeia basin have been polluted. According to Lekkas, the water system is exploited via a number of wells drilled for irrigation (market gardens in Koropi and Markopoulo) for household water supplies (eastern Hymettus from Stavros to Vari), for homes outside the zoned areas not covered by the city water supply, and for industrial purposes. This means that fruit, vegetables and animal produce from this area are at a higher risk of being tainted with this toxin. Another problem is that the deeper levels of the water table are not cleansed; furthermore, the pollution load can be transported some distance away. Lekkas warned of unforeseen consequences for a number of wells, including those in Vouliagmeni and Loubarda, which the Municipality of Kropia is planning to use.