Toxic tip typical of African waste crisis

UN-sponsored research has shown that a vast unregulated dump on the outskirts of Nairobi is a breeding ground for disease and is contaminating the surrounding area with toxic chemicals.

The Dandora dump is, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), fairly typical of large-scale waste sites in Africa and poses a serious threat to the health of children living nearby and the city’s environment in general.

The UNEP study included medical checks of over 300 children living near the tip and soil samples from the vicinity and from a control site elsewhere in the city.

Lead and other heavy metals were seen as the biggest problem, with half of the children showing concentrations of lead above internationally-accepted levels and almost half of the soil samples showing levels of lead over ten times safe levels.

As well as lead poisoning, people living nearby are being exposed to pollutants through contact with the soil as well as contaminated water supplies and airborne pollution from the burning of waste.

This is leading to an explosion in cases of respiratory, gastrointestinal and skin diseases.

For the hundreds of people who scavenge the site for food or tradable items there is also the threat of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases from infected materials.

Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, said: “We had anticipated some tough and worrisome findings, but the actual results are even more shocking than we had imagined at the outset”.

“The Dandora site may pose some special challenges for the city of Nairobi and Kenya as a nation. But it is also a mirror to the condition of rubbish sites across many parts of Africa and other urban centres of the developing world.”

Mr Steiner said UNEP stands ready to assist the local and national authorities in the search for improved waste management systems and strategies including ones that generate sustainable and healthier jobs in the waste handling and recycling sectors.

“It is clear that urgent action is needed to reduce the health and environmental hazards so that children and adults can go about their daily lives without fear of being poisoned and without damage to nearby river systems,” he said.

The 30-acre large Dandora dumping site receives 2,000 tonnes of rubbish every day, including plastics, rubber and lead paint treated wood, generated by some 4.5 million people living the Kenyan capital.

The study also found evidence of the presence of hazardous waste, such as chemical and hospital waste, on the dumpsite.

“We have been witnessing an alarming situation regarding Dandora children’s health: asthma, anaemia and skin infections are by now endemic,” said Njoroge Kimani, author of the report.

“These abnormalities are linked to the environment around the dumping site, and are exacerbated by poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. Since waste dumping is unrestricted and unmanaged, people are also at risk from contracting blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.”

According to World Health Organization (WHO), a quarter of all diseases affecting the humankind are attributable to environmental risks with children more vulnerable than adults.

Among children under five, environmentally-related illnesses are responsible for more than 4.7 million deaths annually.

Twenty-five percent of deaths in developing countries are related to environmental factors, compared with 17 percent of deaths in the developed world.

“The children of Dandora, Kenya, Africa and the world deserve better than this. We can no longer afford rubbish solutions to the waste management crisis faced in far too many cities, especially in the developing world,” said Mr Steiner.

The study urges expediting decision-making on the waste dump in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner.

Sam Bond

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie