21 Oct 2010 13:04:00 GMT
* U.N. health agency says its investigation shows water safe
* Water, air, soil should be monitored for heavy metals
* 150 waste reservoirs along Danube should also be assessed
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Drinking water in Hungarian villages hit by a toxic sludge spill is safe, but must be continuously monitored, along with the air, soil and food, for contamination by heavy metals, the World Health Organisation said.
Reporting on an investigation conducted in Hungary last week, the WHO called for the removal of the corrosive mud to be completed, especially from houses, to minimise residents' exposure.
Residents and nearly 4,000 workers involved in the clean-up should be given clear advice on protecting themselves, the WHO said.
Hundreds of villagers have returned after being evacuated in the Oct. 4 spill of industrial waste at an alumina plant in western Hungary that was owned by MAL Zrt. Nine people were killed and 150 injured, mainly by chemical burns, in the disaster.
"Continued monitoring of outdoor and indoor air, drinking water and the quality of soil and food production will remain essential to assess the risk of exposure, particularly to heavy metals, in the medium and long terms and to take action as required," the WHO said in a statement.
A million cubic metres of lethal red mud surged out of the reservoir, flooding three villages and farmland and fouling rivers including a tributary of the Danube.
Hungarian authorities took prompt steps to neutralise the spill, substantially reducing the risk of direct damage to health, according to WHO's team of four international experts.
A by-product of alumina production, the thick, highly alkaline substance has a caustic effect on the skin. It contains heavy metals, such as lead, and is slightly radioactive. Inhaling its dust can cause lung cancer.
"The information available indicates that the quality of Danube water has remained substantially unaffected," it said.
However, some 150 waste reservoirs located along the river must be assessed for their ability to withstand extreme weather events and to evaluate any risk of contamination of soil and ground water from poorly insulated installations, it said.
Downstream from the disaster site, the Danube flows through or skirts the territory of Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldovia and Ukraine en route to the Black Sea. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Noah Barkin)