Land-fill sites in Africa: A Threat to Children and the Environment

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A new report shows that one of Africa’s biggest land-fill sites, the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site of Nairobi, is a serious threat to children living in the area as well as the local environment.

The report, conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), examined 328 children aged 2 – 18 years old living near the Dandora dump site and its implications on their health. The study also compared soil samples from the dump site to those of another local site outside of Nairobi…

Achim Steiner, Deputy Secretary-General UN and the Executive Director of UNEP, stated that, “We had expected the findings to be troubling, but they turned out to be worse than we had imagined… The Dandora dump shows the specific challenges that the city of Nairobi and Kenya face. But it is also an example of waste sites found in numerous regions of Africa and other urban centres in the developing world,” he noted.

Mr. Steiner said that UNEP was ready to help the local and national authorities to improve the management of road systems and dumpsites, by implementing a policy that could generate sustainable and healthy jobs in the waste and recycling management sector….

A dump with all types of waste exploited by children

The 30-hectare Dandora dump site receives 2,000 tons of waste each day, including plastic, rubber, and treated wood, created by a population of approximately 4.5 million people living in the Kenyan capital. The study also showed the presence of toxic products, such as chemical products and hospital waste, in the dump.

Every day, hundreds of people, including children, from neighbouring shantytowns and poor residential neighbourhoods use the dump to find food, recyclable products, and other objects that they can sell as a source of income. In so doing,, they inhale toxic fumes from burning waste and methane. Waste also often ends up in the Nairobi River which runs only a few metres away from the dump, polluting water used by the residents and the farmers downstream….

The situation has become alarming in terms of the health of children in Dandora: asthma, anaemia and skin infections are endemic. These problems are to do with the environment around the dumping site, and worsened by poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Since waste dumping is unrestricted and unmanaged, people also risk contracting blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS,” said Njoroge Kimani, the main investigator and author of the report.

Tragic heavy metal pollution

… Soil and water samples were analyzed for heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, and organic pollutants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides. Blood and urine samples were analyzed for the same pollutants and symptoms of diseases associated with them.

The results show dangerously high levels of heavy metals, especially lead, mercury and cadmium, at the dump, in the surrounding environment and in nearby residences. The levels of lead and cadmium found at the dump were 13,500 parts per million (ppm) and 1,058 ppm, respectively, compared to 150 ppm and 5 ppm in Holland for these same heavy metals.

A soil sample from the banks of the Nairobi River indicates high levels of mercury (more than 18 ppm compared to 2 ppm, the amount considered acceptable). In samples taken from the soil surface, the concentration of cadmium is 50 times greater than in unpolluted soil (53 ppm compared to 1 ppm).

From a health standpoint, half of the children have levels of lead in their blood; equal to or exceeding the internationally accepted level of 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood, including two children with concentrations of more than 29 and 32 micrograms.

Low haemoglobin levels and iron deficiency anaemia, some of the known symptoms of lead poisoning, were detected in 50% and 30 % of the children, respectively. Exposure to high concentrations of lead is also thought to affect damage the nervous system and brain, while cadmium poisoning damages internal organs, particularly the kidneys, and increases the risk of cancer.

A quarter of the world’s diseases are linked to environmental risks

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one quarter of all human diseases can be attributed to environmental risks; notably in children, who are more vulnerable than adults. Among children under five years old, diseases tied to environmental factors are responsible for more than 4.7 million deaths annually. Twenty-five percent of these deaths in developing countries are related to the environment, compared to 17 percent of deaths in the developed world….

The study recommends that the dump site be managed in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable manner.

Father Danièle Moschetti, a Comboni missionary priest who works with the local community in slums surrounding the dump site, said,” The poor are the best recyclers in the world; nothing is wasted. But this should not put their lives and those of their families in danger. The local community demands that the dump be closed and relocated to a more adequate and controlled location. This will not only reduce health and environmental impacts but will also generate jobs and revenue for the local community.

Many local residents’ lives depend on the Dandora dump. First, the challenge is to minimize and then halt the arrival of dangerous materials, then to ensure better treatment of toxic and medical waste before it arrives at the dump site. We must also provide better and sustainable living conditions for people who work in the dump, and those who live nearby. In the future, increasing amounts of waste are inevitable but we should learn how to improve the life of the poor who depend on this waste and promote its reuse for a healthier economic activity,” stated Mr. Steiner.


October 8, 2007

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