Read time: 3 minutes

Study reveals serious health consequences for those living near waste disposal sites

A group of international scientists collaborating on a study found that people residing close to waste disposal sites reported a number of chronic clinical conditions. Further, the study found that the closer the participants lived to the waste site (as close as 5kms), the greater the likelihood of being diagnosed with asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes or depression.

"Exposure to waste sites and their impact on health: a panel and geospatial analysis of nationally representative data from South Africa, 2008-2015" was recently published in 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 68kms to only 8.5kms 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, while 98 tons are deposited into landfills each year. Professor Rob Slotow, UKZN's pro-vice chancellor of African Cities of the Future, commented: "The increased projected levels of waste in South Africa, especially in poorly managed waste sites, is a huge concern. It can result in serious health complications for the households residing even as far as 10km away. Landfill sites harbour rodent vectors of respiratory diseases, and air pollutants such as hydrogen sulphide emissions, can harm the respiratory system leading to lung diseases, while 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 who 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 well-being). 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 well-being."

Slotow commented: "In developing countries, it is essential that due regard is given for fundamental human rights and properly balancing these 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 that are currently exposed to waste sites, in addition to minimising waste production to reduce adverse effects on human health and well-being."

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 from the University of Cincinnati.