Author(s): C. Andraos and M. Gulumian

Source: Inhalation Toxicology, DOI: 10.1080/08958378.2020.1836092


Introduction: Decades of mining in South Africa has given rise to hundreds of tailings storage facilities (TSFs) and several tonnes of waste. These TSFs have contributed to air pollution due to the lack of proper rehabilitation measures. Currently, it is not known whether tailings emissions could be the cause of respiratory-related ill effects. In addition, the physicochemical properties that may govern their toxicity have not yet been identified.

Aim: The aim of this research was to determine the toxicity of tailings dust and identify the physicochemical properties likely to govern toxicity.

Methods: Dust samples were collected from five TSFs in the Gauteng and North West Provinces of South Africa and sieved to enrich the airborne particle fraction more likely to be inhaled. Thereafter, their physicochemical characteristics were assessed i.e. size distribution, specific surface area, shape, surface elemental composition, mineral composition, total elemental composition and surface activity. In addition, the toxicity and cellular internalization of the particles were assessed using the BEAS-2B epithelial and U937 monocytic-macrophage cell lines.

Results: The results showed that all tailings dusts showed toxicity, particularly in the BEAS-2B cell line. This toxicity could have been governed by either their elemental composition, e.g. high transition elements e.g. Fe, Cu, Cr and V in the dusts from TSF 4, or a combination of other physicochemical properties, e.g. higher quartz content, lower size and higher surface area in the dusts from TSF 1.

Conclusion: These results provide mechanistic evidence to support future epidemiological studies attempting to link tailings dust exposure to adverse health effects.