Heavy Metals

Metals can be present in the environment either as ions, complex molecules, or in combination with other metals or particulates as colloids and precipitates (Ashton et al. 2001).

There are several factors that determine how toxic a metal is to the biological receptors and how far a metal can travel from its source. Toxicity depends on the type of metal, the chemical interactions of the metal with other metals and the presence of organic compounds which may increase the bioavailability and spread of the toxic metal (Davies and Day 1998). The flow rate and volume of water, the physical make-up of sediments, water temperature, oxygen, pH and salinity also impact: (1) how toxic a metal is in a given environment (Davies and Day 1998); (2) speciation (the proportion of metals in different forms); and, (3) the mobility (Ashton et al. 2001).

Heavy metals include cadmium, copper, nickel, zinc, chromium, arsenic, mercury, lead, etc. Many of the metals present in the aquatic system are in suspension or are absorbed onto particulate matter, rather than being in solution as free ions (Ashton et al. 2001). Metals absorbed onto particulates can travel long distances along water courses and be detected downstream of the source.


Heavy metals are persistent in the environment and can be bioaccumulated in aquatic organisms. Mining is one of the primary sources of metal contamination in the Limpopo River basin. The water quality impacts related to mining, with specific reference to metals, are shown below for impacted sub-basins. Sub-basins that have no record of water quality impacts related to heavy metals from mining are excluded from the table below.

Heavy metal water quality issues associated with mining for sub-basins in the Limpopo River basin.
Sub-basin Type of Mining Water Quality Issues
Motloutse Base metals, smelters Copper, nickel
Shashe 1 Gold, base metals, smelters, alluvial gold Bismuth, copper, nickel, mercury
Mzingwane 1 Gold, base metals, small-scale Arsenic, cobalt, mercury, nickel
Mwenezi Small-scale, other (emerald) Chromium
Marico Base metals, smelters, other Chromium, lead, zinc
Crocodile 1 Gold, base metals, smelters, other Copper, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, silver, zinc
Laphalala 1 Base metals, other Lead, tin,
Theuniskloof 1 Base metals, other Iron, manganese
Mogalakwena Gold, base metals, smelters, other Antimony, tin
Sand Small-scale Copper, mercury, nickel,  zinc
Nzhelele Other Lead, nickel
Riet & Little Olifants 1 Base metals, smelters Copper, iron, manganese
Middle Olifants Gold, base metals, other Chromium, copper, iron, manganese, tin, zinc
Steelpoort Base metals, smelters Chromium, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium
Selati 1 Gold, base metals, smelters, other Antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, zinc
Middle Letaba and Great Letaba 1 Gold, base metals, small-scale, other Antimony, arsenic, iron, mercury, tin
Shingwedzi Gold, small-scale Arsenic, mercury

1- Sub-basin names may be slightly different than those found in the source document.
Source: Ashton et al 2001.

Effluent from metal mines must be contained in hydrologically isolated waterbodies. Source: Vogel 2005


Industry and Other Sources

Metal contamination can also originate from industrial activities as well as from urban storm water runoff from roads, parking areas and other impervious surfaces, ending up either in waste water treatment plants, or directly in the river. Toxic metals are also associated with some pesticides (Heath and Claasen 1999).

Sources of metal pollution from industry.
Metal Source
Cadmium Laundrettes, electroplating workshops, plastic manufacturing, pigments, enamels, paints
Chromium Alloys, preservatives, dying and tanning activities, metal coatings
Copper Electronics, plating, electrical wires, paper, textiles, rubber, printing, plastic
Iron Galvanizing, electroplating, polishing
Lead Fuel additive, batteries, pigments, roofing, fishing weights
Zinc Domestic wastes, galvanizing, batteries, paints, fungicides, textiles, cosmetics, pulp, papermills, and pharmaceutics
Nickel Alloys, electroplating, nickel-cadmium batteries, laundrettes, paints
Mercury Dental practices, clinical thermometers, glass mirrors

Source: Moletsi et al. 2004

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken