This week, I will hand this space off to Jack Caravanos, a member of Blacksmith’s Technical Advisory Board and a leading expert in lead pollution/contamination. Jack is part of part of a project in Ghana jointly funded by Blacksmith and CUNY, in partnership with Green Advocacy Ghana, the Ghana Heath Ministry and the Ghana EPA.
I recently returned from the notorious Agbogbloshie recyclers market in Central Accra and all the reports you may have read about this place is true. Where else in the world can you find people dismantling computers, automobile engines, refrigerators and the like mixed in with a wholesale vegetable market, dozens of food vendors, a large mosque and the infamous copper wire burning site, which produces large volumes of toxic black smoke that lingers in the air all day. All this happening in what appears to be a random, chaotic structure (while there are no streets, vendor signs or directory, it is actually quite well organized and profitable to the vendors.)
The visual impacts are diverse and overwhelming: [watch video here]
- Women pounding yams and cassava into the food staple, Fu-Fu, all day long to feed workers and family.
- Boys of all ages scavenging the ashes at the “burn sites” with their hands and a small metal blade looking for iron, aluminum and copper remnants to sell.
- Young girls selling bags of water to both quench the burning metal and provide nourishment to the workers in the scorching sun and heat.
- Young men manually lifting automobile and truck engines onto wagons that carry them to the unregulated dismantlers, leaking motor oil throughout the market
- Young girls doing laundry in large pots with no central drainage.
- Hundreds of men pounding gears, computers, motors, with handmade chisels attempting to separate the valuable from the waste.
- On top of all this, add the ever-present black smoke from burning plastic. Its distinct odor mixed in with the sewage gases emanating from the Odaw River nearby.
Everywhere you look you see pieces of circuit boards, televisions, refrigerators, irons, etc. The toxic chemicals released are spread throughout the area when it rains and of course spread to the homes each evening. What especially troubled me was the path of the toxic smoke that floats right into the food market. So whatever doesn’t get into your lungs can now settle onto the food supply of Accra. Agbogbloshie is a large thriving recyclers market but has major environmental health problems.
Workers and residents know the issues, the problems, the risks, but there are no simple solutions. One thing is for sure: the market cannot and will not close.
Often science is needed to affect policy change, meaning we need data. Together with two graduate students from the City University of New York School of Public Health and tremendous support from our partners in the Ministry and Green Advocacy, I conducted two days of sampling at the site. We sampled worker’s breathing zones and ambient air for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, acid gas, heavy metals, VOCs and particulates. Lab results are pending but preliminary observations indicate serious chemical exposure to the toxic plumes associated with burning plastic covered wires to expose recyclable copper.
We spoke with workers and asked them how we can help. Stopping the burning is an obvious solution but raises other difficult problems. We are all working to identify short-term interventions and long-term solutions to this serious urban environmental health problem.