WHO/Europe to assess health impact of sludge spill in Hungary

A team of WHO experts is travelling to Hungary today to provide additional expertise to the Government-led assessment of potential short- and long-term health impact of a sludge spill that affected the country’s western territories on 4 October 2010.

The acute public health impact of the event has been serious but localized, with 8 people killed and over 120 injured. The immediate health effects of the spill included drowning and chemical burns due to the elevated pH (>12) of the red sludge. Assessment is needed of the health effects of possible exposure to dust, water and locally produced food that may contain increased amounts of heavy metals. The Hungarian authorities are continuously monitoring the situation, and have taken the public health actions required at this stage.

The sludge entered the river Danube at the end of last week, and it may spread in attenuated form to countries downstream; this possibility and related health effects will be evaluated. While serious short-term health effects are considered unlikely, potential medium- and long-term effects through contamination from heavy metals (for example, entering the food chain) can only be assessed as more information becomes available. The risk of contaminated dust’s spreading from the spill site to neighbouring countries is considered negligible.

The WHO mission will make an expert assessment of the short-, medium- and long-term effects of the spill on public health in the affected area; the Hungarian authorities will use the results to develop appropriate preventive action. The team includes international experts in evaluating and managing health risks from the environment, particularly from contaminated water and chemicals.

WHO/Europe is ready to provide technical assistance to the governments of countries through which the Danube runs, downstream of Hungary, if requested.