UNEP report links lead and other heavy metals pollution to degrading health of children living around Dandora waste dump in Nairobi, Kenya
Nairobi, 5 October 2007 - One of Africa's largest waste dumps, the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi, is a serious threat to children living nearby and the city's environment generally, a new study shows.
The study, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), examined 328 children aged 2-18 living around the Dandora waste dump and its health implications. The study also compared soil samples from the site with another location just outside of Nairobi.
Half of the children tested had concentrations of lead in their blood exceeding internationally accepted levels, while 42 percent of soil samples recorded lead levels almost 10 times higher than what is considered unpolluted soil (over 400 parts per million (ppm) compared to 50 ppm).
Children have been exposed to pollutants such as heavy metals and toxic substances through soil, water and air (smoke from waste burning) with implications for respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological or skin diseases. Almost half of the children tested were suffering from respiratory diseases, including chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and 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," he said.
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.
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, at the same time inhaling the noxious fumes from routine waste burning and methane fires. Waste often finds its way into the Nairobi River that runs just meters away from the dumpsite, polluting water used by local residents and farmers downstream.
The St. John's Catholic Church and Informal School is located in close proximity 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. 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 Njoroge Kimani, principal investigator and author of the report.
Mr Kimani and his team conducted detailed research into Dandora Municipal Dumping Site's impacts on public health and the environment. 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.
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 (over 18 ppm against the safe level of 2 ppm). The soil surface samples also recorded cadmium concentration 50 times higher than in unpolluted soil (53 ppm compared to 1 ppm).
Health wise, 50 percent of the children had blood lead levels equal to or above the internationally accepted action levels of 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood, including two children with concentrations of over 29 and 32 micrograms.
Low haemoglobin levels and iron deficiency anaemia, some of the known symptoms of lead poisoning, have been detected in 50 and 30 percent of the children, respectively. Exposure to high lead levels is also linked with a wide range of other ill effects including damage to the nervous system and the brain, whilst cadmium poisoning causes damage to internal organs, especially kidneys, and cancers.
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.
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."
"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. We also need to deliver safe and sustainable conditions for the people working on, and living near, the site. 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," said Mr Steiner.
Notes to Editors
The summary of the report Environmental Pollution and Impacts on Public Health; Implications of the Dandora Municipal Dumping Site in Nairobi, Kenya can be found on UNEP's website at www.unep.org/urban_environment/
The report was prepared by Njoroge G. Kimani, a clinical biochemist of Kenyatta Hospital, with support from Rob de Jong of UNEP's Urban Environment Unit.
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UNEP News Release 2007/30