Giant Waste Dump Poisoning Nairobi Children, Environment

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 9, 2007 (ENS) - One of Africa's largest waste dumps, the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi, is a threat to the health of children living nearby and the city's environment, a new study shows. Tests found high levels of lead and other heavy metals in the blood of area children, who also suffer from respiratory diseases, including chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Dandora, located in a low-income residential area about eight kilometers (five miles) east of Nairobi center, is the main dumping site for most of the solid waste generated by the 4.5 million people living in the Kenyan capital. The study was commissioned by the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, which has its headquarters in Nairobi.

The Dandora Municipal Dumping Site (Photos © Rob de-jong / UNEP
Over 2,000 metric tonnes of waste are deposited daily at the 30 acre Dandora dump, and what initially was to be the refilling of an old quarry has given rise to an enormous mountain of garbage.

Dumping at the site is unrestricted. Industrial, agricultural, domestic and medical wastes - including used syringes - are strewn all over the site. Plastics, rubber and lead paint treated wood, hazardous waste containing poisonous chemicals were found on the dumpsite.

The Nairobi River passes by the dump and some of the waste makes its way into the river, which carries these environmental and health risks to communities near the dump and downstream who may be using the water for irrigation of food products and in their homes.

Every day, scores of people, including children, from the nearby slums and low-income residential areas use the dump to find food, recyclables and other valuables they can sell as a source of income. As they pick over the garbage, they are inhaling the noxious fumes from routine waste burning and methane fires.

The study examined 328 children from two to 18 years of age living around the Dandora waste dump.

Half the children tested had blood lead levels equal to or exceeding the internationally accepted action levels of 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood, including two children with concentrations of over 29 and 32 micrograms.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner 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 children have been exposed to pollutants such as heavy metals and toxic substances through soil, water and smoke from waste burning with implications for respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological or skin diseases.

Low hemoglobin levels and iron deficiency anemia, some of the known symptoms of lead poisoning, were detected in 50 and 30 percent of the children, respectively.

The Nairobi River runs beside the Dandora dump site.

Exposure to high lead levels is also linked with damage to the nervous system and the brain, while cadmium poisoning causes damage to internal organs, especially kidneys, and cancers.

Almost half of the children tested were suffering from respiratory diseases, including chronic bronchitis and asthma.

"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 centers of the developing world," Steiner said.

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 St. John's Catholic Church and Informal School is located close to the dump. Between 2003 and 2006, the Church dispensary has treated 9,121 people per year on average for respiratory problems.

"We have been witnessing an alarming situation regarding Dandora children's health - asthma, anaemia and skin infections are by now endemic," said Njoroge Kimani, principal investigator and author of the report, who serves as a clinical biochemist at Kenyatta Hospital.

"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," said Kimani.

Smoke from burning garbage at the Dandora site hangs over the neighboring residential area.
Experts from the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Kenyatta National Hospital and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute as well as local community leaders from St. John's Catholic Church in Korogocho have supported the study, which was written with support from Rob de Jong of UNEP's Urban Environment Unit.

The study also compared soil samples from the site with samples from another location just outside of Nairobi. Tests showed 42 percent of soil samples had lead levels 10 times higher than what is considered unpolluted soil - more than 400 parts per million, ppm, compared to a safe level of 50 ppm.

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

The results show dangerously high levels of heavy metals, especially lead, mercury and cadmium, at the dumpsite, in the surrounding environment and in local residents. Lead and cadmium levels found on the dumpsite were 13,500 ppm and 1,058 ppm, respectively, compared to the action levels in The Netherlands of 150 ppm/5 ppm for these heavy metals.

One soil sample from the banks of Nairobi River indicates high levels of mercury. Tests showed over 18 ppm against the safe level of two ppm. The soil surface samples also recorded cadmium concentration 50 times higher than in unpolluted soil - 53 ppm compared to the safe level of one ppm.

According to World Health Organization, 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 Steiner.

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

Father Daniele Moschetti, a Comboni missionary priest working with the local community in the slums surrounding the dumpsite, said, "The poor are the best recyclers in the world; nothing of value goes to waste. But this should not put them and their families' lives in danger.

"The local community is advocating for a closing and relocation of the dumpsite, whereby a controlled and well-managed waste processing facility should be established. This will not only reduce health and environment impacts but also generate jobs and income for the local community," said Father Moschetti.

"Many local peoples' livelihoods depend on Dandora's wastes. The challenge is to minimize - indeed halt - the level of hazardous materials coming to the tip in the first place and better treatment of toxic and medical wastes before they arrive," said Steiner.

"We also need to deliver safe and sustainable conditions for the people working on, and living near, the site," he said. "For the foreseeable future, growing amounts of waste may be inevitable but we should learn how to better assist poor people who depend on this waste and promote the recycling and reuse of this waste as a safer economic opportunity."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.