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Danube 'absorbing toxic sludge'

The River Danube was apparently absorbing Hungary’s toxic red sludge spill with little immediate harm, officials have reported.

The spill, triggered when a reservoir burst, dumped 718M to 836M litres of sludge onto three villages – slightly less in a few hours than the 900M litres the blown-out BP oil well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico over several months, the government said.

The death toll rose to five when an 81-year-old man died this morning from injuries sustained in the flooding

“The consequences do not seem to be that dramatic,” said Philip Weller, who heads the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube when asked about harm to the waterways ecosystem up to now.

But Greenpeace said samples taken from the sludge showed high concentrations of toxic substances.

Greenpeace told reporters in Vienna that the samples taken a day after the spill showed “surprisingly high” levels – 110mg of arsenic and 1.3mg of mercury per kilogram of dry matter.

The results, which also show 660mg of chrome per kg, are based on analyses carried out in laboratories in Vienna and in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

That translates, very roughly, into 50t of arsenic, 300t of chrome and 500kg, or a half ton, of mercury set free by the spill, Greenpeace officials said.

Greenpeace officials said the detected arsenic concentration is twice the amount normally found in so-called red mud. Analysis of water in a canal near the spill also found arsenic levels 25 times the limit for drinking water.

Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zoltan Illes, said the henna-coloured sludge covering a 16sq.m swathe of countryside has “a high content of heavy metals,” some of which can cause cancer. He warned of possible environmental hazards, particularly to groundwater systems.

With rain giving way to dry, warmer weather over the past two days, the caustic mud is increasingly turning to airborne dust, which can cause respiratory problems, Illes said.

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