Study Reveals Serious Health Consequences for those Living Near Waste Disposal Sites

A group of international scientists, including prominent UKZN researchers, have found that people living close to waste disposal sites suffer several chronic clinical conditions.

Their study also found that the closer the participants lived to the waste site (as close as 5km), the greater their likelihood of being diagnosed with asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes or depression.

Titled: Exposure to Waste Sites and their Impact on Health: a Panel and Geospatial Analysis of Nationally Representative Data from South Africa, 2008–2015, the study was recently published in the journal: The Lancet Planet Health.

The scientists accessed data over a nine-year period from the South African National Income Dynamics study which included 32 255 participants. The data included the health status of participants living close to waste sites, as determined by data captured in the South African National Income Dynamics Study.

UKZN’s Dr Mitsuaki (Andrew) Tomita, lead author of the study, said: ‘Between 2008 and 2015, we observed a substantial increase in exposure of households to waste sites. The median distance of households to waste sites decreased from 68km to only 8.5km over the study period. We found there was a greater likelihood of asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes, and depression in individuals residing within 5km from waste sites.’

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa is in the midst of a waste disposal crisis with only 10% of waste currently being recycled whilst 98 million tons are deposited into landfills each year. UKZN’s Pro Vice-Chancellor of African Cities of the Future, Professor Rob Slotow, commented: ‘The increased projected levels of waste in South Africa, especially in poorly managed waste sites, are a huge concern. It can result in serious health complications for households as far as 10km away. Landfill sites harbour rodent vectors of respiratory diseases, and air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide emissions can harm the respiratory system leading to lung diseases, whilst groundwater contamination can also affect health outcomes.’

Professor Jonathan Burns, former UKZN Head of Psychiatry and current honorary professor in Psychiatry at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said: ‘In apartheid South Africa, due to racist environmental policies, “non-White” people were dispossessed of their land and forcibly moved to sites that were racially designated, often at urban outskirts including close to landfill sites. The danger posed by certain landfill gases lasts for decades, specifically for those living in close proximity to such sites that had little choice as to where they could live in pre-democratic South Africa. Further people living close to these sites; often reported odour, traffic, pollution, and property devaluation, which can also have a psychological impact on these communities.’

The scientists propose a sustainable development approach to address the enormous rise of waste sites in South Africa in order to improve the health and well-being of its people according to the Sustainable Development Goals. Tomita added: ‘We identified multiple health problems in individuals living close to waste sites, which is contrary to the constitutional human rights of the population, as outlined in the Constitution of South Africa (ie Section 24, the right of individuals to live in an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing). Furthermore, the association with mental health outcomes indicates a potential negative effect on the dignity of individuals living near waste sites, which is linked to both social justice and wellbeing.’

Slotow commented: ‘In developing countries, it is essential that due regard is given to fundamental human rights, properly balancing against decisions relating to economic development. Producers of waste (individual entities or countries) need to fully understand, quantify, and take responsibility for the complete costs of waste generation, particularly for the burden placed on communities that live near waste sites. We want to stress the need to prioritise universal health coverage of at-risk communities currently exposed to waste sites as well as minimising waste production to reduce adverse effects on human health and wellbeing.’

Other authors of the study include honorary professor at UKZN, Professor Frank Tanser, who is also a scientist in the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), and professor in the Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Dr Diego F Cuadros of the University of Cincinnati in the United States.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photographs: Supplied