Retired José Maria da Silva, 64, sweeps the house where he lives in Volta Redonda (100 km from Rio de Janeiro) every day because a fine black dust insistently appears on the furniture and the floor. The material leaves CSN (Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional) and invades homes in the neighborhoods around the plant.
José Maria worked for 24 years at CSN and retired as a chemical technician. Today he participates in movements against air pollution in the municipality where he has lived for 60 years.
“When I arrived in Volta Redonda, coming from Minas Gerais, I looked at the chimneys and thought that this would be the place where I would become people. Throughout my life, I naturalized all the smoke that was in the air.”
The black powder comes out of the steel mill in the process of making steel. Studies show that air pollution in the city may be linked to hospitalizations due to respiratory diseases.
The oldest steel company in Brazil, CSN, inaugurated in 1941 as a state-owned company, began producing steel in 1946, in Volta Redonda. The company was marred by employee clashes with the army during a strike in November 1988. Three workers were killed when troops tried to enter the plant. In 1993, CSN was auctioned.
The emission of dust is admitted by the company and is on the radar of the Ministry of the Environment, which is considering opening a dialogue with CSN and the state government of Rio de Janeiro to demand a solution.
Councilors from the south of Rio de Janeiro met with minister Marina Silva in early August, in Brasília. Politicians hope that she will pay a visit to the city by the end of the year, so that she can see the circulation of the material up close.
CSN, in a note, states that the circulation of dust is “more common at this time of year in industrial cities, due to the dry weather”, and that it is investing R$ 700 million in equipment and filters, to reduce dust, and also in increasing the cleanliness of the plant’s pathways.
The Inea (State Institute for the Environment), responsible for monitoring pollution, says in a note that it “systematically assesses the air quality in the municipality of Volta Redonda” and that it fined CSN R$ 1 million for the black dust. The steelmaker signed a TAC (Term of Adjustment of Conduct) under which it undertakes to reduce pollution by September 2024.
Also according to Inea, a station for measuring the concentration of gases and particular materials was installed in the municipality.
Patrícia Alves Carneiro, from the chemistry department at UFF (Fluminense Federal University), says that the dust circulating in Volta Redonda contains iron oxide, mixed with other components. Residents have already carried out tests: they gathered the powder on paper and managed to move the material by bringing a magnet closer.
“The effect of the magnetic field brings evidence of iron. It draws attention because, if particulate matter of larger dimensions is leaving, it may be leaving smaller dimensions, invisible to the eyes”, evaluates Carneiro.
There are different types of particles suspended in the air: the so-called PM10, which have a size of 10 micrometers (a micrometer is equivalent to one thousandth of a millimeter), and the PM2.5, with a smaller size of 2.5 micrometers. The thinner ones, points out the researcher, can be more dangerous because they are more breathable.
“Articles from the 1980s already showed that the particulate material carries with it other chemical and organic substances, such as polycyclic hydrocarbons”, he says. PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are defined by the federal government as contaminants.
“There are carcinogenic PAHs, others mutagenic”, explains the researcher.
Psychologist Alexandre Fonseca, 32, is one of the coordinators of the Movimento Sul Fluminense Contra a Poluição, which held an act in July for the situation in Volta Redonda.
“Pollution causes everything from small inconveniences, such as the particulate matter that remains in houses, cars, on the streets, to major ones, such as health. In Volta Redonda, the fact that we cannot breathe is normal. Everyone has a problem. respiratory in some measure, be it allergy, bronchitis, or asthma”, he says.
A study published in 2020 in the Brazilian Journal of Environmental Sciences associates air pollution in Volta Redonda with hospitalizations due to respiratory diseases. The research crossed data from health systems with information on the emission of particles in the environment.
“The pollutants were related to hospitalization. When the level of pollution increased, there was a greater number of people who were admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems”, says Marcelo Moreno, a public health technologist at Fiocruz (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation).
“Of the 5,235 cases of hospitalization for respiratory problems, 6% were related to air pollution. It is a significant association”, he says.
Helena Guerra, sustainability director at CSN, admits to pollution problems at the plant, but denies any association with respiratory diseases.
“The dust, contrary to what is advertised, cannot be breathed due to its granularity. It is a particle that falls, makes houses dirty, but there is no real correlation with a respiratory problem. The air quality in Volta Redonda is good , the nuisance of dust will be solved”, he says.
Residents also complain about the information on air quality provided by equipment installed on city streets. The company providing the service is hired by CSN. The data, according to the steel company, are sent to Inea.
Councilor Raone Ferreira (PSB), who went to Brasília to discuss the issue at the beginning of the month, asks for independent inspection.
“We defend independent monitoring, carried out by the municipal government and in dialogue with the federal government. Historically, Inea has been lenient with air pollution”, says Ferreira.
Also contacted by the report, the City Hall of Volta Redonda detailed the measures announced by CSN and said that it maintains constant inspections inside the plant. The administration also said that the Health Secretariat is in “constant surveillance in all aspects”.