‘Poisoned’ workers raise arsenic alarm at homeopathy plant
Pretoria staff go to court for help, claiming their lives are at risk after inhaling toxic fumes, which factory denies
Workers at a Pretoria factory that makes well-known homeopathic products claim they have suffered arsenic “poisoning” and that their working conditions are so unsafe that their lives are at risk.
Seven workers have approached the Pretoria High Court to ask for a hearing this week. They are seeking an urgent interdict ordering that the CoMed Health factory, which manufactures Natura products, be temporarily closed until tests prove their working conditions are safe.
The company has denied any wrongdoing, saying the application was “vexatious”.
The legal action comes after staff working in the quality control lab say they inhaled arsenic fumes in September. They claim to still have symptoms of ill health.
Urine tests taken a few days after the incident show that “while arsenic levels were present, they were well below safety limits”.
The test results were included in the application.
The conflict began in September 2018 when newly pregnant employee Liz Thobela was working with sulphuric acid. She claims in an affidavit that electricity to the toxic fume extractor tripped and its lights went off.
“I coughed violently. I had chest pains. Breathing and talking was extremely difficult. My ears and nose were irritated. My throat was burning and my eyes were teary and bloodshot.
“The fume hood [which extracts toxic fumes] in the lab was not working and this caused our symptoms.
“My immediate concern was the health of my unborn child.
She claims her manager denied that her illness had been caused by the sulphuric acid, and urine tests were not conducted.
Thobela took sick leave. A week later colleagues in the laboratory were allegedly exposed to arsenic fumes and rushed to hospital.
Fired worker Lebogang Nzolo states in her affidavit that when she asked on several occasions for the fume hood to be fixed, she was told it was too expensive.
In their application, the workers reject a labour department report that cleared the factory, saying they were never interviewed about the incident.
Workers also ask in their application that medical regulatory authorities test Natura products and the Brainhealth brand.
Their advocate, Simba Chitando, said more affidavits were being collected from employees.
CoMed, which is defending the application, said it had “meticulously followed all necessary health and safety requirements”.
CoMed chief executive Peter Kreft said he believed the application was a case of “confusion and unhappy workers” and was “totally vexatious”. He said there was no evidence anyone had been harmed.
“I am also not aware how anyone’s lives could be at risk.”
He disputed that the extractor fan was broken, saying an external company had validated the fan this week, and that records were kept each day.
“Natura products have been on the market since about 1962 and I see no threat to the public or to staff whatsoever,” he said.
The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority did not respond to e-mails.