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Community sees spike in previously unheard-of diseases in wake of water disaster: 'Life has changed radically'

"We had to move farther away from the river because of a putrid, fetid smell."

Fundão mine, Diseases in wake of water disaster

Photo Credit: Getty Image

Brazilians who live along the Doce River near the town of Mariana will always remember Nov. 5, 2015, as the day their lives were changed forever by a cataclysmic tidal wave of toxic waste from a nearby iron mine. 

Nineteen people died, and thousands were left homeless after entire villages were destroyed. Unfortunately, residents are still suffering from disease after what the Guardian called the country's worst environmental disaster. 

What happened? 

A dam, which was used to contain tailings (toxic waste from iron mining) at the Fundão mine, failed, spewing about 2 billion cubic feet of heavy-metal-laden mud onto villages for 373 miles. 

The wave of pollution eventually hit the Atlantic Ocean, per a National Library of Medicine report on the disaster. 

The dam was owned by Samarco. The mining company was part of a joint operation by Brazilian iron ore producer Vale and Australia-based mining company BHP, according to the Guardian.

Why is it still a problem?  

A photo from the Guardian shows members of a Krenak tribe standing on the banks of the Doce about a month after the disaster. The water was a bizarre orange color. 

"We had to move farther away from the river because of a putrid, fetid smell," Rondon Felix Viana said

The river was a source of livelihood and culture where residents fished and held baptisms. 

"Life has changed radically," Viana said. "We can't bathe or swim in the river because people get skin rashes." 

Residents told the newspaper that there have been increased cases of diabetes, hypertension, and cancer in the years since. Viana said that because one of his tribe's primary food sources — the Doce — is contaminated, villagers are eating more processed foods. That could contribute to the increase in diseases that had not impacted the village before. 

What's more, blood samples from people in three communities hit by the flood found high levels of exposure to several heavy metals, according to a 2021 NLM report. 

"Well and tap water intake were identified as important sources of exposure to aluminum and nickel," NLM experts wrote. 

What's being done to help? 

More than 720,000 residents are suing BHP for more than $45 billion in damages, the Guardian reported. The case is set to be heard in a London court in October. 

To help from home, you can research nonprofits that are providing aid. Earthworks and the Renova Foundation are examples. Earthworks supports safer processes to dispose of mine waste. 

The foundation was started by the companies that operated the mine. The Guardian reported that it has provided $6 billion in aid so far. 

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