Air pollutants such as smoke from coal and wood burning, cigarettes and car exhaust fumes are toxic to human life. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung carcinomas, bronchitis and other acute and chronic respiratory conditions are the culmination of noxious inhalation of chemicals. Car exhaust fumes are caustic to healthy lungs. Because of misdiagnosis and the inability of health personnel to diagnose or detect pulmonary diseases due to the non-existence of advanced diagnostic tools, it is hard to assess the deleterious health effects of air pollutants in The Gambia.
Gut feelings and individual intuition will lead one to say with some confidence that respiratory illness is a major problem in The Gambia. One of the signs of respiratory illness is having a productive cough and that is not a rare commodity in The Gambia. People cough and spit on walls and pavements which are easily visualized with thick greenish or yellow phlegm (sputum). These are some indicators of some form of respiratory abnormality or illness. The precursors for the aforementioned respiratory illnesses are dust, smoke and nasty exhaust fumes from old cars that ply The Gambia’s roads.
Soliciting the air pollution culprits
Gambians in the diaspora are major contributors to the air pollution challenges we have. The practice of sending old cars that could not pass emission testing in Europe and North America is treacherous and outright wrong. All one is doing is putting his/her own fellow citizens at risk for carcinogens and hazardous chemicals. I think it is high time The Gambia Government started looking into doing emission testing on all vehicles. It is mind-bothering to see thick palls of smoke emitted from engines of feeble cars shooting up our beautiful skies and dirtying up the air we breathe. My personal appeal to folks in the diaspora is to please stop shipping cars to The Gambia that are not drivable in their place of purchase due to dangerous emissions and government restrictions.
Gambians’ magnanimity and philanthropist nature sometimes inadvertently pose health risks to the very people they are trying to help. Scavenging for old non-functional equipment and materials from hospital dumpsters or storage facilities and shipping those to hospitals and health centers in The Gambia should be discouraged. Some of that equipment has chemicals such as mercury; lead should be stored and disposed properly in order to avoid contact with the body that could lead to bad health effects. It is gratuitous to send non-functional medical equipment to a health facility that does not have the know-how on how to repair the equipment and sometimes don’t even have the technical skills to operate such equipment. I have to say kudos to people who used their own money and lots of their time to help our people but let’s not do it at the expense of the health of the very people we are trying to help.
Another major air pollution source in The Gambia is wood and coal burning. The usage of alternative sources of energy other than burning wood and coal is absolutely necessary if we are to protect the people from the inimical smoke emitted from unhealthy fuel sources. Using gas stoves could be a viable option.
The contamination of our water supplies is another environmental factor worth mentioning. Feces and domestic waste dumped in rivers and ponds serve as breathing grounds for diarrheal disease when consumed. Diarrheal diseases come in the form of campylobacter, cholera, shigellosis, typhoid, amoebic dysentery, giardia, and norovirus to name a few. These diseases are fatal and are claiming the lives of Gambians especially children under five years of age.
Contamination of underground water, which is a major water supply in The Gambia, is another practice that should be stopped. Leaving toxic waste products and non-biodegradable materials such as plastic bags on the ground, will and do eventually contaminate our underground waters which lead to diarrheal disease, if not cancers and death. Leaving stagnant water around our dwellings also breeds mosquitoes and other insects.
Be careful of lead and asbestos
Minimising soil contamination should be prioritised if we are to preserve our homeland. Lead from old batteries and tires, paints and empty cans or containers are some of the things that should be looked at by authorities responsible for the environment.
Lead has a lethal effect on humans especially children. It limits the intellectual capabilities of both children and adults. Lead poisoning or toxicity is known to cause harmful effects such as decrease in libido, impotence, kidney disease (lead nephropathy), reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), cognitive malformations, forgetfulness, hypertension, blood disorders, anemia, abnormal fetal and childhood development, fetal death, et cetera. It is unfortunate that Gambian children are exposed to all kinds of lead sources when playing games and enjoying other childhood activities in our homesteads and neighborhoods.
To effect a change, there has to be ban on the importation of toys, furniture and paints that have excessive lead contents. The practice of dumping old tires and empty cans in streets should be made unlawful if we are to reduce the lead levels in our surroundings. One will be curious to know the results of blood lead levels of Gambian children. We are sacrificing the intellectual capabilities of our future generation and we as a nation have to come up with a plan to stanch a potential problem that will haunt us for years if not generations to come.
Exposure to asbestos is another major problem that needs to be addressed. So many roofs of old government buildings are made of asbestos. The time is way overdue to demolish those buildings and make them free of asbestos. Asbestos exposure is documented to cause pleural effusion (excess fluid around the lungs), asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura). These are all lung diseases that eventually could cause premature deaths.
It is sad that we are unable to quantify the health outcomes of so many environmental pollutants Gambians endure because of lack of empirical evidence. Agencies responsible for assessing the aforementioned factors have a dearth of data to share with the public and sometimes the data is non-existent because they were never collected. I hope and pray someday officials responsible for protecting our environment appreciate the importance of data collection.
Protecting your own health, and your community’s, too
Not an exhaustive list, but we can take personal responsibility and do the following to effect a change:
Stop the random dumping of waste such as feces, empty cans, trash, soaped waters, etc., in the streets.
Stop the importation/exportation of vehicles that will fail emission testing, in order words, emit noxious fumes to the environment.
Ban the importation of paints, children toys and furniture containing high lead levels.
Develop a system for collecting used batteries and old tires to get them off the streets.
Stop discarding plastic bags in the streets after drinking your cold waters, wonjo, gingerrs, et cetera.
Let us contain our spits and desist from splattering phlegm and sputum helter-skelter in order to preclude exposing other people to one’s infections.
Do not send non-functioning equipment to health facilities just to end up gathering dust and infectious organisms.
Minimise wood and coal burning for cooking. We can all commit to buying one or two stoves for our households to use for cooking breakfast and dinner.
Enforce the existing anti-dumping laws and bring people to justice if they violate the law.
Increase the number of environmental specialists to help with public health sensitization, cleaning of the streets and other public places. This should be a shared responsibility.
Incentivise communities for their good environmental cleaning practices.
Old tires, tins and cans, and stagnant waters, are perfect environments for mosquito breeding. Efforts should be made to minimize these conditions and, if possible, eliminate them.
Finally, let’s all make it habitual to pick up after ourselve.
Bakary M. Jallow, RN, BSN, MPH, is an Infection Preventionist Clinician with the John C Lincoln Hospitals Network in the United States. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona