October 24, 2020

COVID-19: Waste Likely to Emerge as Major Health and Environment Risk in Kenya

A man scavenging on garbage at Mombasa's Mwakirunge dumping site. Image: SALMA ATHMAN

MCK (P11)

By CHARLES OGALLO

Email: thecoastnewspaper@gmail.com

Improper disposal of COVID 19 related waste is raising concerns to health professionals, environmentalists and residents as huge usage of personal protective equipment (PPEs), face masks and gloves take its toll with spiking numbers of infected people on rampage.

The worsening spread of the disease throughout the country with a 500-plus daily is likely to impact on the use of medical gear to combat the coronavirus resulting into a major environmental threat from improper disposal mechanism.

Although the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has established guidelines on how to deal with COVID 19 generated waste, many health institutions lack clear provisions of securing, packaging, storage and disposal of such medical waste.

The Environmental Management and Coordination (Waste Management) Regulations of 2006 has clear provisions on the management of biomedical waste but most of private facilities lack this, thus becoming sources of health risk themselves.

This comes in the backdrop of increased usage of the safety materials against the disease resulting into massive generation of waste that can be considered as infectious waste. 

If not well addressed, the single use gears in the medical facilities could pose both cross infections and environmental risk as the country grapples with the ever-increasing cases of COVID 19.

A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus which causes COVID-19 could remain infectious for several hours to days on surfaces and in aerosols including plastic.

The poor disposal of face masks, medical protective gowns and hand gloves made from plastic materials and used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were likely to pose a danger to human and environment.

In Mombasa County, just like many other counties in the country, the PPEs waste, especially single use face masks and hand gloves if not well disposed can adversely affect the environment in what scientists and environmentalists see as a health risk to the public.

For instance, the County’s Environment, Waste Management and Energy department collects about 2,000 tons of solid waste per day with most of its collectors working without protective gears in the ongoing pandemic.

Mwinyi Mkuu, a middle-aged father of four and a resident of Mombasa has been a solid waste collector with a private waste collection firm for more than eight years and says COVID-19 is a threat to his life.

DEPLORABLE CONDITIONS

Despite working in deplorable conditions, Mwinyi has never thought of quitting his job knowing very well the dangers facing him daily.

People scavenging on garbage at Mombasa’s Mwakirunge dumping site. Image: CHARLES OGALLO

“Most of the time I work here without hand gloves leave alone face masks, they are not providing us with those safety gears and I can’t be able to buy them using my meagre earnings,” he says adding that he continue to fill dirty looking sacks with used face masks and hand gloves dumped every week at a garbage disposal point at Kisauni Constituency.

Mwinyi joins a catalogue of others daily exposed to risks of contracting not only the coronavirus but also other contagious diseases from the kind of work they are doing to eke a living.

Gilbert Atuga, a research scientist in charge of Micro-Plastic Research at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute in Mombasa says PPEs need to be treated as a bio-hazard waste countrywide so that the public should be keen on how they dispose such solid waste.

He, therefore, calls for communities to demand through their leaders to have designated places where such waste could be disposed and later collected by respective County government authorities.

“Initially, PPEs’ waste used in hospitals or laboratories is supposed to be handled as bio-hazard waste with very clear disposal mechanism hence difficult to leak to the environment,” he says.

However, according to him the current utilization of PPEs nationwide and lack of proper waste collection or disposal guidelines in Counties will lead to increased haphazard disposal of the same in the environment.

LACK OF COMMITMENT

Ben Wemali, action environmental team chief coordinator and environmental expert blames this on lack of commitment from the County authorities in addressing effectively the persistence problem of solid waste management in Mombasa County.

Mombasa County Governor Ali Hassan Joho. Image: (Courtesy)

He expresses fears of further spread of coronavirus, especially in Mombasa, unless government authorities take stern measures by imposing tough regulations on disposal of medical solid waste in public.

“COVID-19 is real but I still see people treating it normal even the county government is not coming out serious to inform residents about dangers of not disposing those used face masks and hand gloves safely,” he says.

The sentiment echoed by Dr Muinga Chokwe, an environmental rights defender and a psychiatrist want both the national and county governments to promote public awareness on importance of safe disposal of waste including used PPEs.

Dr. Muinga, also chairman of Clean Mombasa CBO, a local environmental lobby group is also agitating for a clean City of Mombasa.

He further wants the County government to relocate all poorly designated garbage collection points away from residential areas saying they are posing environmental pollution and health risks on residents.

“Surely with this coronavirus, how can a whole county government allow PPE waste to be dumped just right at peoples’ doorsteps and expect them to remain healthy and even the environment around to be the same?” Dr. Muinga poses. 

WASTE POLICY

But contacted the County Environment CEC Dr. Godffery Nyongesa Nato says they are aware of dangers posed by PPE waste and like any other waste they are developing a County Integrated Development plan which would include PPEs waste management policy to address the matter.

He believes the environmental and health problems posed by solid waste, especially plastic waste, spread across many parts of the County will be soon addressed amicably through what he called “a vibrant Mombasa County Solid Waste Management policy”.

According to the policy, households, offices, cafes, restaurants, hotels, food stalls, schools and universities, markets, retail shops, supermarkets and warehouses are major sources of more than 2,500 tons of solid wastes produced daily in Mombasa.

Out of this, only 40-65 per cent is being collected and dumped at the Mwakirunge Site from designated garbage collection points spread across the county.

A recent study on spatial distribution of waste collection points and their implications on quality of life in Mombasa County showed that only 13 per cent of households have access to the County waste management services due to mismanaged primary collection points.

“The county has nine designated collection points that are inadequate and has led to the emergency of formal collections points which exposed residents to communicable diseases” says the study conducted by Ezra Wekisa, an Environment Researcher at Kenya University and Christine Majale, a Lecturer at Technical University of Mombasa-TUM.

The researchers recommended for a robust public participation in any urban related interventions to ensure whatever is implemented has the desired outcome.

Apart from civic education on the safe disposal of COVID 19 waste, there is also an urgent need to police the disposal of medical waste and their managements to minimise risks of contracting the disease.

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