16 October 2017

Tanzania: Fears Mount Over Hospital Waste Disposal Near Human Settlements

Mkuranga — A hospital waste incinerator is the centre of a scandal with far-reaching environmental and public health consequences facing some 4, 000 residents of Dundani Village in Mkuranga District, Coast Region.

The incinerator, which The Citizen learnt was installed before an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted, has exposed the residents to extreme health and environmental hazards caused by heavy smoke and a chocking smell produced by the plant.

The facility - known as 'Safe Waste Incinerator' - has been used in burning hundreds of tonnes of medical waste.

This state of affairs is enough to instill fear in the wellbeing of the local community.

Earlier on, not many locals sensed the possible danger of toxic emissions being spewed out of the incinerator. But that sense of safety vanished when the facility - which is located in a relatively densely-populated residential area, public places and natural environs - started incinerating massive medical waste.

Apparently, the place on which the incinerator was built between 2013 and 2014 was unpopulated when its owner acquired the land for the project.

But, the situation changed over time, and the facility is today slap-bang in the midst of residential houses, whose residents are now up in arms in protest against the adverse effects of the incinerator's operations.

The current situation has put political leaders and public health officials in Mkuranga District under pressure to act in efforts to minimize possible damage to the environment, and harm to the health of the surrounding communities.

"The heavy, smelly smoke produced by the burning of hospital waste in this area is putting us all in a very difficult situation. It is very irritating; it smells like burning (human) bodies, or noxious toxins... It is really difficult to exactly describe thetype of smell which we inhale," complained a Dundani villager, Mbarka Salumu.

Mr Salumu claimed his family almost incessantly suffers from bouts of flu, coughs and severe fever, strongly believing that the contagions are the effects of the smoke billowing out of the incinerator's chimney.

The National Environment Management Council (NEMC) says it has not received official or formal complaints about the alleged toxic emissions.

"We received the information only a few days ago - and we are now preparing to visit and inspect the facility. We can only draw conclusions after visiting the site and inspecting the facility," said senior NEMC official Alfred Msokwa.

Hinting that the Mkuranga District authorities had actually cleared construction of the incinerator at its current location, Mr Msoka said that they did this without first conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project.

"District councils permit such sensitive facilities to be installed and operated in their efforts to boost revenues - but they sometimes overlook safety and other issues concerning the environment and public health. They approve environmentally-sensitive projects at the local level - and, thereafter, fail to effectively monitor them," Mr Msokwa explains.

A top official of the company operating the incinerator, who asked not to be named for not being the official spokesperson, said the concerns raised by Dundani residents and local leaders were 'normal challenges facing businesses.'

"We have received calls from several people in Mkuranga who want us to surrender our documents. We have written to them to seek an appropriate time to sit with all responsible authorities to respond to their concerns," said the official.

The Mkuranga incinerator does not operate daily, but when it does, the huge choking smoke produced by its operation does indeed spread far and wide into houses and open spaces.

Another resident of Dundani Village, Saidi Mnage, a petty trader has also complained that the choking smoke from the incinerator cannot be a good thing for humans and the environment.

"The emission is chocking and smells like toxic chemicals. When we ask them about it, they tell us that they are burning expired medicines! However, we don't really know what exactly is being burnt," Mr Mnage laments. He claims to have seen lorries coming to the incinerator under the escort of uniformed police officers to offload what could very well be expired medicines which are then burnt at night.

Dundani residents want the facility to be relocated soonest - or the chimney be elongated well into the sky.

"We are still in the dark about when this misery will end as the pollution continues relentlessly to adversely affect us as days go by," says Mr Mnage.

Worries of health complications

The nuisance and possible health effects that could be caused by the Mkuranga incinerator were also raised by women living close to the incinerator.

"Our frustration is that the facility emits highly irritating smell. It affects pregnant women badly. Sometimes my husband buys fresh fish that we prepare for consumption. But, when it comes to eating the meal, we sometimes are unable to do so because of loss of appetite as a result of the smoke," says one pregnant woman whose identity is withheld.

Her view was echoed by another woman, Najma Saidi. "The irritation caused by this installation is unbearable. You may prepare your food but fail to eat it because the smell that comes from that incinerator is too irritating. Now that you have come here, please go back and report about the misery we are subjected to - that the situation here is not good; it is intolerable," Ms Saidi stated.

Students also affected

Students of Dundani Secondary School routinely complain of breathing difficulties and other irritating inconveniences caused by fumes from the incinerator.

"This situation causes us difficulties in breathing. Sometimes we fail to study in class. Once the smoke comes our way, the classrooms become inhabitable because of the swirling smoke," says Form IV student Saidi Sadi.

Another Sudent Zuwena Salim adds: "When the smoke comes in all of us, teachers and students, are forced to exit our classrooms. It is like they are burning rotten stuff out there... "

Authorities speak out

The Assistant Health Officer for Mkuranga Ward, MrJuma Shari, said the residents became aware of the situation after a Dundani Secondary School teacher, Mr Saidi Hemedi, called to notify the ward authorities of the choking smoke from the incinerator that was adversely affecting teachers and students.

"In light of that information, we visited the area and personally witnessed how the ugly smoke was affecting the school community and residents in the area," Mr Shari said.

The Citizen also witnessed a huge quantity of burnt hospital waste being taken from the incinerator and dumped at unauthorized sites in Mkuranga.

Lack of an ash pit for the burned waste has also been cited as a serious shortcoming at the plant.

The councilor for Mkuranga Ward, Mr Hamisi Abdallah, admitted that Dundani residents had complained to him about the irritation they were subjected to when the incinerator was operating.

"Initially, I sent my officers there to assess the situation - and the feedback was that the situation was indeed adversely affecting people in the area.

"My fear is that these people are dumping remains of burnt hospital waste in unauthorized areas within Mkuranga," the councilor stated.

Why the proper authorities have not acted on the issue despite the endless complaints remains a difficult question whose answer Dundani residents are begging for.

The acting Mkuranga Ward Executive Officer, Mr Juma Difa, said they have requested the environment department of the Mkuranga District Council to inspect the facility and establish if it indeed meets the statutorily laid-down standards. "It is a serious problem. The incineration area is in the lowlands while the school and residential houses are on higher ground. So, when the incinerator is switched on, plumes of smoke easily spread around," says the local leader.

He accuses the owner of the facility and his supervisor of not cooperating with the authorities. The Headteacher of Dundani Secondary School, Mr Saidi Hemed, says the school is one of the areas that are adversely affected by the choking, smelly fumes caused by the incinerator.

"It is true that this factory is causing us all problems. Students are not comfortable in class when the incinerator is in operation - and they try to cover their noses with pieces of cloth; but it doesn't help," he says. He revealed that his school was already in the area and was operating long before the incineration facility was constructed.

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