The environmental and human health impacts of Waste: Responses towards environmental justice for Africa

This paper is the second part of a three-part research series exploring toxic waste and transboundary movement of toxic waste from developed to developing countries. Research Series Part 1 traced some of the reasons for the movement of toxic waste from northern to southern countries, focusing especially on waste imports into the African continent. This second part research examines some of the environmental and human health effects of transboundary waste movements and disposal in Africa. It looks at two African case studies to highlight the impacts of waste disposal, especially on local communities. These include Ashanti Goldfields and Anglo American gold mining operations in Tanzania and Thor Chemicals in South Africa. It also examines some civil society responses to achieve local environmental justice in the case of Thor Chemicals. The paper finally examines the impacts of e-waste for African communities in general before concluding. This paper together with Research Series Part 1 builds on Part 3, which will explore solutions to eliminate the production of toxic waste and waste trafficking.

The potential for adverse human health and environmental effects of transboundary dumping of toxic (and other) waste in Africa cannot be overemphasised. The solution for industrialised countries for many years has been to export their waste to third world countries which are in greater need of funds and where concern for the health of the population is minimum or non-existent. As noted in Research Series Part 1, developing countries usually have lax environmental regulations. In addition, developing countries are unlikely to have in place standards for the proper design of hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities. The tendency, therefore, is that these wastes will not be disposed of in an environmentally-safe manner. There is, therefore, potential for devastating impacts of hazardous waste on human health and the environment. Despite sixteen years of the Basel Convention (Refer to Research Series Part 1 for more information on the Basel Convention), import of toxic waste especially electronic waste and old ships has actually increased in developing countries. At the ninth Conference of Parties (COP 9) in Bali 2008, the President of the Basel Convention, Rachmat Nadi Witoelar Kartaadipoetra, State Minister for the Environment of Indonesia noted, regarding the negative impacts of hazardous wastes on people and nature, the illegal traffic of such wastes has shown no sign of decreasing and that their generation was actually increasing. As Research Series Part 1 noted, global waste generation was about 12.7 billion tonnes in 2000 and is expected to rise to about 19.0 billion tonnes in 2025 and to about 27.0 billion tonnes in 2050.

Impacts on human health and the environment as a result of transboundary movement of waste, especially toxic waste, continue to be widespread in Africa. The dumping of waste in 2006 by a Dutch company around the port city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, resulted in the death of 10 people and the hospitalisation of 69 others. Several thousand more suffer lingering effects on their health, their livelihoods and their personal environments. Due to the hazardous and nuclear dumping in Somalia by European companies in 1997, the public faces unfamiliar diseases with an alarming increase of cancer patients, deformed births and other illnesses. Large quantities of obsolete computers, televisions, mobile phones, and other used electronic equipment exported from the United States and Europe to Lagos, Nigeria for “re-use and repair” are dumped and burned near residences in empty lots, roadsides and in swamps creating serious health and environmental contamination from the toxic leachate and smoke. In 2001 in Ghana, multinational Goldfields Ghana Limited, spewed thousands of cubic metres of wastewater contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals into the Asuman River, the main source of drinking water for the Abekoase community and Huni Village and several other hamlets along the river. The river was awash with a large amount of dead fish stock, crabs and other aquatic life floating on the water. Cyanide is known to be lethal to humans in very small quantities, with only a teaspoon of two percent cyanide solution causing death. Because of the number of cyanide spills and accidents, cyanide leach gold mining using large quantities of cyanide to remove gold from ore or crushed rock is creating much controversy. There is growing concern about both the environmental impacts and human health risks of using cyanide as a processing agent.

Ashanti Goldfields and Anglo American gold mining:
The case of health and environmental impacts in Tanzania
Tanzania is blessed with an abundance of mineral resources. In gold alone, Tanzania is estimated to be sitting on top of a US$39 billion treasure and is the third-biggest producer of gold in Africa. Despite this, not only is the country one of the poorest in the world, but local communities living next to multinational mining giants are exposed to the toxic waste spewed from gold mining production. In 2001 in Tanzania, the Geita gold mine a joint venture between Ashanti Goldfields of Ghana (as above) and South Africa’s Anglo-American leaked toxic chemicals (i.e. cyanide) used to extract gold into the local drinking water supply. Villagers noted that pollution from the mines was killing people, livestock, and wildlife due to water contamination. A family of four died after eating a dying rabbit they had caught near the tailings dam. A number of women were also reported to have had miscarriages. In total, about 857 people were displaced by the incident with no compensation. According to preliminary research findings by the Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT), residents in the district are being afflicted by unidentified diseases with unfamiliar symptoms because of the increasing pollutants. Plants that the farmers raise contain up to 9000 times the maximum limit for heavy metals determined by UN agencies. The soil is supposedly more than 6000 times as toxic as the maximum level. Heavy rains also caused mining waste to overflow from the eighty-two-hectare dam into nearby streams. The company made clear it accepted no responsibility for any deaths but ironically wanted to be a good neighbour. More than 4000 people had to leave their homes when the mining operations were started in 2000. However, the pollution caused by Geita gold mine is not an isolated incident in Tanzania. Similar incidents have also occurred for the Bulyanhulu mine which is operated by Barrick Gold Tanzania Limited, which has impacted on the Nyamongo village community.

The devastating impacts of gold mining on Tanzania communities and environment (as above) was also noted in a 2008 Tanzanian report by a Special Rapporteur to the United Nations, Human Rights Council on ‘the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights.’ In accordance with the Resolution of the Commission on Human Rights the appointment of a Special Rapporteur is mandated to carry out field missions with a view to assisting the Governments concerned in finding appropriate solutions to deal with the illicit traffic and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes, especially in African and other developing countries. In addition, the report noted with concern the large volume of unregulated small-scale mining that is taking place around the country.

It was noted that both gold and diamonds were using chemicals such as mercury and other dangerous products during the extraction process without the use of proper safety equipment (potentially impacting on workers health). Of concern was that substantial amounts of mercury were obtained by small-scale miners from “unofficial” sources outside the control of the government. Miners also did not have adequate information about the impact mercury could have on their health, including the dangers of the improper disposal of tailings and their effect on their livelihood and the environment. In a number of areas, land, water, plants and livestock were noted to possibly be at a high risk of contamination from mercury and other dangerous wastes. In other cases, a limited number of small-scale miners had some awareness of the dangers of using mercury and other chemicals in the extraction process. However, due to poverty, inadequate information and the lack of a suitable alternative, the miners continued to use mercury and other dangerous products without appropriate safety measures, endangering both the environment and their own health. Large scale gold mining companies did not conduct adequate awareness campaigns to sensitise villagers in their areas about the dangers posed by contact with wastes from their operations, particularly cyanide. The case study above shows how multinationals that set up operations in Africa; dump their toxic by-products of their industrial processes onto local populations who have to suffer the consequences of local resources extraction. Unfortunately, this extracted wealth leaves the local communities who rightfully own local resources. The only things left behind by multinationals for communities are externality costs (i.e. degraded environments and human health effects for present and future generations).

Britain’s Thor Chemicals waste trafficking: The case of South Africa
Background and history
Thor Chemicals Inc of Great Britain (now known as Guernica Chemicals), a mercury processing plant established in 1963, had been accused in 1987 of poisoning workers and putting surrounding South African black communities at risk from mercury exposure. The industry relocated its United Kingdom mercury recycling operation to Cato Ridge in 1987. The risks created by Thor were situated in the Umgeni catchment at Cato Ridge in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The company activity included the production of mercury-based products for local and export markets. Thor engaged in the manufacture and marketing of biocides, textile auxiliaries and metallic organic soaps. The company received mercury waste shipments mainly from the United States, but also from Britain, Singapore and Indonesia. Other areas included Brazil and Italy. As one of the only facilities in the world to form a large-scale mercury reclaiming process, Thor quickly became a target for many international companies facing the predicament of what to do with mercury waste. These exports and pollution caused by Thor were disclosed as part of an investigation of toxic waste trafficking. Thor was receiving shipments as part of their mercury recovery (recycling) program, which included the importation of mercury waste to recover mercury. The company accumulated mercury waste because of increased production of mercuric compounds and spent catalyst waste returned by its customers after use.

Thor committed numerous offences, including the relocation of operations to South Africa to escape health and safety criticisms from United Kingdom authorities. The company neglected to protect workers from the occupational health hazards associated with mercury. Management disregarding company urinary monitoring results that repeatedly indicated excessive levels of mercury in workers and failed to inform workers about the occupational health hazards associated with mercury. Thor also employed casual and untrained workers who were laid off or ‘recycled’ once they became ill. Other offences committed by Thor included environmental racism, contamination of local groundwater and surface water supplies, stockpiling of mercury waste, sludge, and treated waste. The company also exceeded atmospheric emissions beyond existing regulations and used incineration for disposal despite it being abandoned in most countries in the late 1980s. This was due to organic generating air releases (i.e. polychlorinated biphenyl’s and dioxin) and toxic ash disposal. The industry was incinerating hazardous waste without a license. The incinerator did not meet required standards as set out by different government departments, and despite the shutdowns, Thor continued accepting waste which accumulated. The mercury Thor received contained high levels of dangerous organic compounds. At the time there were five mercury-recycling plants in the United States but not one of them would touch waste with an organic content higher than 3%. The mercury waste containing organic contents received by Thor was said to be between 30 and 40% by volume. TCH had been aware of the poor operations of its plant since 1978. In 1987 TCH was issued with an ultimatum by United Kingdom authorities to clean up or face court action and was forced to close its United Kingdom operations. Despite this TCH continued its mercury operations in South Africa. In 1990 even though the then Minister of Environmental Affairs announced that: ‘South Africa will under no circumstances allow that other countries export their hazardous waste to South Africa’, the Minister of Environment bowed to multinational pressure within two months of the first announcement. In a letter addressed to the Managing Director of Thor Chemicals, South Africa, the Minister rescinded the ban placed on the importation of hazardous waste, provided Thor did not accept spent chemicals for recycling, other than those originating from its other subsidiaries.

Environmental and health impacts
The people most affected were workers directly handling mercury. It was reported that they were suffering from a severe nervous disorder induced by mercury poisoning. In 1990 South African NGO Earth Life Africa (ELA) received reports of workers ‘going mad’ at Thor. Many workers died after being exposed to massive quantities of mercury. In April 1990, 29 workers at the Cato Ridge Thor site presented psychiatric and neurological signs and symptoms. Subsequent medical examinations revealed that workers’ had severe mercury poisoning and subsequently three workers died from mercury poisoning. An investigation by the Industrial Health Unit into 80 medical records revealed that 87% of workers had mercury levels that were above the safe limit. In 1992, an Industrial Health Unit report stated that 28% of workers were in danger of permanent health damage due to poisoning. In 1992 a government report revealed that 29 workers had suffered mercury poisoning. In 1998 it was shown that workers had been exposed to mercury levels up to 12 times higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) regulations. Workers were exposed to high mercury levels during employment and suffered symptoms including sexual dysfunction, tiredness, quick tempers and severe memory loss. Mercury was also found 15 kilometers downstream from the plant. Water samples, taken from the Mngeweni River behind Thor and analysed for mercury, were found to contain 1.5 million parts per billion. This was 1500 times higher than the United States limit for “sediment to be declared toxic.” In 1990 samples taken by Greenpeace and local activists revealed equally high levels of mercury. Cattle died due to mercury exposure from drinking water. The stockpiled waste had also contaminated groundwater and soil. Thor exposed the downstream communities that relied on this river for drinking and fishing with mercury poisoning. Rats in the vicinity were found by a zoologist to have seven times more mercury in their bodies than a control group away from the plant.

Responses towards environmental injustice
Early protest in 1990 against Thor Chemicals was brought together by a heterogeneous group of people including black peasant farmers, ecologists, students, unionised workers and the traditional Zulu chief. The South African Chemical Worker’s Industrial Unit (SACWIU) General Secretary noted that the demonstration signalled a powerful ‘rainbow coalition’ between green groups and the trade union movement in South Africa. Publicity both nationally and internationally was employed. The first indication of injustice was revealed when Greenpeace, ELA and the South African NGO Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF) exposed a dispatched shipment of 160 barrels of toxic mercury from its Louisiana plant to South Africa. In South Africa, ELA, EJNF and protesters held vigils at the Cato Ridge plant on 21 February 1993. Similar protests were held at the Borden plant in Louisiana. Such actions had a strong international component with workers and concerned citizens in two countries thousands of miles apart combining forces to send a clear message to multinationals and the international toxic waste trade, that they would not go unchallenged. Worldwide attention focused on the international shipping of toxic waste. The pressure was applied on government by the South African environmental organisations to ban further imports of toxic waste according to the Basel convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. ELA and Greenpeace began compiling information on Thor activities and transgressions and began building a case study against Thor and the SA government. Following the deaths of two workers in 1992 and months of investigation, Thor was criminally charged in Great Britain for culpable homicide and violations of machinery and Occupational Safety Act. In 1994, a claim was filed against Thor in the High Court in London on behalf of the first three victims.

On 24 March 1995, after public outcry of mercury waste poisoning, the government appointed a Commission of Inquiry into Thor Chemicals. The purpose of the commission was to investigate the history as well as the background of the acquisition of the mercury stockpiles on the Thor premises and to report on further utilisation. The formal Department of Manpower inquiry revealed gross negligence. A total of 41 former workers sued Thor for compensation for mercury poisoning. The cases were ultimately settled out of court. Court proceedings against Thor took place from 1992 to 1995. All charges of homicide against three employees were dropped by the State Prosecutor. In the 1990s, compensation claims against the parent company of Thor Chemicals commenced in the English High Court on behalf of 20 workers affected by mercury poisoning. The claims alleged that the English parent company was liable because of its negligent design, transfer, set-up, operation, and supervision and monitoring of an intrinsically hazardous process. In 1997, the claim was settled for £1.3 million. A further 21 claims were commenced by workers from the same factory and settled on the first day of trial. Evidence from abroad against Thor was said to be important for successful outcomes of litigations.

In 1994, after seven workers died at the plant, the South African government prohibited the plant from operating. Since then stockpiled mercury waste has been sitting on the property and has leaked chemicals into the environment. Thor closed it mercury-recycling operations in 1997 but did not remove the stored mercury stored on-site. In 2003, the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs handed over a directive to clean up to the management of Thor. In terms of the directive, Thor would have to take specific steps within a specific time to properly and safely store the waste and to clean up all traces of mercury contamination in the surrounding community.

In June 2004, the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) commissioned consultants to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Treatment and Disposal of Mercury Waste and Decontamination of the Thor Chemical Site in Cato Ridge. NGOs gW and ELA questioned whether incineration would be used in the final disposal phase. According to gW, the wheels of justice with regard to holding Thor accountable and protecting the health of people and the environment has been slow. In 1994 the National Department of Health closed Thor’s recovery plant after tests revealed unacceptable levels of mercury in emissions from the incinerator. In the same year, imports of mercury-containing waste ceased to be imported into the Cato Ridge plant. However, the Cato Ridge site still houses over 3,500 tonnes of mercury-containing waste endangering surrounding communities and the environment. Environmental justice has not been fuller achieved.

Unknown impacts of e-waste on human health and the environment
According to the European Environmental Agency, e-waste is growing faster than any other type of waste, with an annual volume close to 40 million metric tonnes globally. Unfortunately, many communities and workers exposed to toxic waste in developing countries do not know the extent of the impacts of toxic waste to human health and their surrounding environments. A Greenpeace analysis of soil and sediment were taken from two electronic wastes scrap yards in Ghana in 2008 revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals. The report ‘Chemical contamination at e-waste recycling and disposal sites in Ghana’, noted with concern the extent of environmental contamination caused by recycling and disposal of e-waste in Ghana from Europe, the United States and Japan. Some of the samples contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above levels found in uncontaminated soil and sediment samples. Other chemicals such as phthalates, some which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction, were found in most of the test samples. One sample also contained a high level of chlorinated dioxins, known to promote cancer. There was a concern for Ghanian children’s developmental and reproductive systems, as well as brain development and nervous system impacts.

Other activities that have the potential for impacting on handlers of e-waste include children playing amid heaps of toxic ash from burned electronic waste, unprotected workers brushing cancer-causing carbon black from computer printer cartridges, labourers opening cathode ray tubes containing toxic lead and barium, and widespread burning of plastics that produce dioxins. Other activities include handlers whose work involves sitting by small fires, heating up computer circuit boards to melt the lead-and-tin solder, producing toxic fumes they cannot help but inhale.

Unfortunately, the impacts of toxic waste are usually borne by poor people, whom in addition to already experiencing high levels of poverty that impact on their health; have to deal with added chemical and toxic exposures that further reduce their quality of life. Hazardous waste disposal sites generally expose large populations to toxins. Communities exposed to such toxins are almost always required to also provide evidence for the burdens they are exposed to even though impacts on health may or may not be clearly visible. In fact, many of the impacts to health may take years to fully materialise due to the bioaccumulatory nature of toxic chemicals exposure. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights notes that toxic waste affects the human right to health, both physical and mental, and the human rights to clean water, food, adequate housing and work. Unfortunately, poor communities in Africa do not have the resources to fight against multinational corruption and dumping of toxic waste into communities. It is ultimately up to civil society organisations and governments who must provide the necessary education to inform people about impacts of toxic waste on human health and the environment. In addition, the global community must stop toxic waste and illegal toxic waste disposal. However, what are the solutions to eliminate the production of toxic waste and waste trafficking and disposal for Africa? This will be addressed in final Part 3 of this research series.

Leonard, L. (2009) The environmental and human health impacts of Waste: Responses towards environmental justice for Africa, Research Series – Part 2, Ugandan Parliamentary Briefing, United Kingdom, 13 March.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *