OINOFYTA, Greece (Reuters) - The river started turning purple 10 years ago, but the people in the small Greek town of Oinofyta who were losing loved ones to cancer never thought of blaming the water.
Factories have been dumping waste in the Asopos River for decades and nearby tourist beaches were declared unfit for swimming, but there were no official warnings to the people of the town, in an industrial zone about 60 km (35 miles) north of Athens.
It took until this year for official tests to show drinking water was contaminated with high levels of the carcinogen chromium 6, catching the attention of U.S. advocate Erin Brockovich and spreading shock and anger in the town.
Used as an anti-corrosive in the production of stainless steel, paint, ink, plastics and dyes, the metal is on the European Union’s list of restricted substances and listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
It poses health risks if inhaled or orally ingested, or comes into contact with skin.
Since 1989, the proportion of deaths in the town caused by cancer has risen to 32 percent from 6 percent previously, according to Oinofyta’s priest, Father Yannis.
“When I heard it was so dangerous that you’re not even supposed to come into contact with it, I was terrified,” said resident Dina Fouki, a 35-year-old mother of two. “I have lost loved ones and will lose more. Something must be done.”
Fouki has lost her father and in-laws to cancer in the past five years and her friend has been diagnosed with the disease. Now she and her neighbors will not even brush their teeth with tap water.
A putrid stench rises from the river, whose waters run from red to black and ripple with bubbling sludge. Despite the obvious pollution, local people said officials never warned them of the risks in the 30 years since the factories set up in the area.
“When we lost our relatives we started getting suspicious,” Fouki said. “But we didn’t know. How could we?”
Brockovich, made famous by a Hollywood film about how the water supply of Hinkley in California had been contaminated with chromium 6 in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, has discussed the Asopos pollution on her Web site and plans to visit the area.
A biochemical engineer and the priest joined forces in a crusade to force authorities to take action. After years of campaigning, tests by the state lab showed the water supply, contaminated by the Asopos, had high levels of the chemical, also known as hexavalent chromium.
“In the beginning, 2000-2002, no one was listening,” said biochemical engineer Thanasis Panteloglou. “Authorities were in denial.”
His co-campaigner Father Yannis searched for medical proof that the water was having an effect on health, but could find none. What he did find was that in the past 18 years, 198 people in a town of 3,000 had died of cancer.
“We are enraged over being fooled for so many years. We fear our health is damaged. We are desperate and angry,” he said.
It started in 1969, when factories were first allowed to dump waste unrestricted into the Asopos. Although authorities later put restrictions on what could be discharged, many factories built illegal underground pipelines straight into the water and continued to empty untreated waste.
“Many people knew that Asopos was polluted but they were not aware of the extent of this pollution,” said Greenpeace Greece president Nikos Charalambidis. “Pollution was not the first priority at the time, industrialization of the area was.”
After chromium 6 was detected in August this year, government inspectors dug up 20 illegal pipelines dumping untreated waste in violation of regulations.
In November, the government imposed fines totaling 1.4 million euros ($2 million) on 20 companies, saying they should be using waste treatment systems. It vowed to toughen anti-dumping laws and said it would not hesitate to shut down factories violating the rules.
“If the same factory violates the law again, then we will have to stop its operation,” said Evangelos Baltas, general secretary in the Environment Ministry.
Some of the companies that were fined deny wrongdoing and say they will challenge the penalties in court.
“We do not pollute the river with chromium, period,” said a representative of industrial packaging manufacturer Maillis, which received a 160,000-euro fine. “All solid and liquid waste that comes out of the production process goes through a number of consecutive treatments.”
Maillis said government tests in October showed its waste did not contain chromium 6.
A further report by the Association of Greek Chemists commissioned by the town in October confirmed the water’s high chromium 6 content and went on to say the water was dangerous to human health and its human and domestic use should be suspended.
The government has said it wants to create a waste treatment system for all industries in the area, seal off the illegal pipelines and supply drinking water to Oinofyta from elsewhere.
The water supply has not been shut off and concerns have grown over the safety of produce from farms that use it for irrigation, and of the waters of the Evoikos Gulf, full of tourist beaches.
“We don’t know the extent of the area that might be affected so far, but we are taking measurements,” said Baltas. “The problem is with the groundwater and the soil.”
People in the town say authorities are doing too little, too late, to save them from contamination and demand immediate access to clean water.
“Why are they killing us?” said Panteloglou. “I am shouting: stop committing this crime, stop killing the people. Someone has to hear me.”
Reporting by Deborah Kyvrikosaios;, editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Sara Ledwith