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Improper waste disposal reduces quality of life – Charles Reith

By Ebele Orakpo

In most urban and semi-urban centres in Nigeria, you find waste piles of various sizes and shapes with foul smell oozing from them. These wastes include plastics, papers, clothes, food scraps, bottles, cans etc. Apart from being an eyesore which does great injustice to an otherwise scenic environment, these wastes can migrate and accumulate in ways that pose risk to humans, according to Dr. Charles Reith, the Director of Sustainability and Interim Provost, American University of Nigeria, Yola. In this chat with Vanguard Learning, the Professor of Environmental Science and Entrepreneurship, says there is need to practise controlled waste disposal to safeguard the environment and health. Excerpts:

Waste migration:
According to Reith, there are different pathways through which wastes such as batteries, fluorescent bulbs, half-empty paint cans, medical waste and dead animals, migrate from the dump site into the environment. These pathways include “surface runoff, leaching, vermin, livestock, crops, and atmospheric transport, both of re-suspended particles and residues of combustion.”

Combustion/Inhalation pathway:
Said Reith; “One of the ways that people dispose of waste is by burning. They take particularly the plastic bags and bottles and set them on fire and that creates toxic chemicals which are inhaled by people in the community. This creates risks for them because the residues emanating from the waste pile hang over fields and neighborhoods. It is a respiratory hazard; it is life-shortening because they could get lung cancer from it.”

Charles Reith
Charles Reith

Water pathway/Sinks:
“Another way that waste can move from waste pile into the environment is by water. You have water falling on waste piles and going into sinks or receptors. Sinks include street sides, neighborhoods, water bodies and farms. Whenever it rains, some of the waste get washed off the surface, then move into pools that are near the waste pile and those pools are actually used for bathing and irrigating crops. Some even move further all the way into a river. We know there are toxic constituents like lead and mercury and these toxic constituents are mobilised from the source which is the pile, through a pathway which is through the air or water, to a sink which is for instance our lungs or liver.

Direct exposure:
Children sometimes go to waste piles and actually sift around the waste looking for things that might be valuable. We identified five different waste piles in Yola and in one of them, children were sifting around and we discovered it was a pile with medical waste – hypodermal syringes, gauze, blood-borne pathogens etc. They could get their hands punctured or they they could become infected through the ingestion pathway which means the child is going round the pile, touching it and if he doesn’t wash his hands and ends up eating food, he may ingest it.

Livestock like cattle go to waste piles and sometimes, it is their main way of feeding. Then you have crops that grow on the pile and sometimes you actually have people who build their houses close to the pile.

Proper waste disposal:
“In countries where there is more funding and more government resolve, wastes are very carefully dealt with. They are isolated from the beginning. They go into trash bins and then into trucks and the trucks haul them to either an incinerator where they undergo contained incineration, or contained pyrolysis (anaerobic combustion), the latter of which can be controlled to sequester carbon and produce a valuable soil amendment; or they could be taken to a dump site so the waste is isolated. That is the key; having isolation every step of the way.

But in Nigeria, we don’t have that. We have co-mingling of wastes from humans and other aspects of the environment like the water they drink, the air they breathe and that is what presents as life-shortening risk to us,” he said.


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