DOMISIANO OWOR: How Ugandans are killing themselves by burning “Kasasiro”

Burning plastic waste also releases a range of toxic gases, heavy metals, and particles into the air. These can be bad for our health. Dioxins are just one of the many harmful emissions from incinerators. They are highly toxic and can cause cancer and damage to the immune system.

Burning plastic waste also releases a range of toxic gases, heavy metals, and particles into the air. These can be bad for our health. Dioxins are just one of the many harmful emissions from incinerators. They are highly toxic and can cause cancer and damage to the immune system.

Uganda like many other African countries is struggling with the management of waste across the country and this problem is evidenced in market areas, towns, and cities across the country.

A visit to a market area after a market day will leave you puzzled by the volume of polythene and other packaging materials that forms a kind of a waste-mulch of the market area.

The market sellers and buyers alike behave just the same way, opening packaging materials of products they sell or buy and just throwing away the packaging material.

This is not only a market problem but a countrywide bad habit that is being done by Ugandans from across all walks of life. It’s puzzling to see even the corporates or the elite of this country carelessly throw trash as they go about their lives.

Trash flies out of both luxury and ordinary cars alike. The commuter vans and the buses are no exceptions. Whether in public or private vehicles, the trashy behaviour lives on. Boda-boda fellows and their clients are not any different.

Is there any segment of this society that does it differently? Whether dressed in suits or ordinary attire, we all seem so poor when it comes to handling waste.

One wonders what level of “I don’t care” attitude do we have. But is it a question of not caring or it is a question of ignorance, that is making us waste away our beautiful motherland? For the record, it is illegal to litter in Uganda.

What happens to the trash you throw?

Do you know what happens to that trash “kasasiro” you throw away? That waste you throw around is swept by rain to into the drainage channels, clogging and blocking the drainage system, resulting in floods, and damaging the roads, while part of the waste is carried to our water bodies, causing serious pollution of the waterbodies, from which our lifelines depend. It comes back to us to pay the price of this action whether in the form of high-water treatment costs, contaminated fish, or other aquatic food resources.

The other significant portion of the trash thrown around remains on land, gets buried in the soil, contaminates our foods and we pay for it with our health etc. I will not go into details of the how, but studies are already revealing very worrying results of this trashy behaviour in our food system and bodies. I will handle that in another piece. So, as you aimlessly discard that waste, know that it will come back to you and either you or your children will eat it. Yes, if you don’t handle that trash well, it will come back to you, and you will pay the price by force.

Are you burning Kasasiro, here is why you should STOP.

A significant portion of urban mixed waste is burned in waste dumpsites or collection points. A lot of mixed domestic waste is also burned within or around homesteads. This burned waste is normally a mixture of both plastics, organics, and other waste types. Many people think it is an easy way to get rid of that waste from their homes instead of paying the waste management company to pick up the waste and take it to an appropriate waste management facility. On some evenings, many suburbs of Kampala and other similar urban settings have the recognisable smell of plastic fumes from uncontrolled open burning of waste.

The people burning seem unbothered, the neighbours breathing the polluted air seem unbothered and no one seems to care. You may not have been caring because you did not know what you are inhaling and the health price you will pay, but after reading this piece, you will be to blame for letting this dangerous habit of open-burning mixed waste continue in your home or neighbourhood under your watch and doing nothing about it. The truth is that the cost of uncontrolled burning of kasasiro is so high that it should be stopped yesterday.

Uncontrolled burning of mixed waste which consists of both synthetic and non-synthetic products releases toxic chemicals into the air that we breathe. The gases released include carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Polycyclic Organic Matter which includes Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), etc. Some of the other toxic substances which may be released from trash burning into the air are dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Of key importance are dioxins which are known, as potent cancer-causing, endocrine disrupters but also have significant impacts on human immune and reproductive systems. Some PAHs like Benzo-a-Pyrene are also considered cancer-causing and are among the key topics of concern. The burning also releases soot with a lot of Particulate Matter (PM) which provides adsorption or carrier platforms for some substances like PAHs.

The nature of exposure to these substances will vary the type of impact caused, with generally short exposures resulting in fewer impacts compared to long-term exposure. However, even if immediate effects don’t surface during short-term exposure to the smoke, long-term exposure can cause more serious health impacts, for example, most cancers can take many years to develop and can be caused by low exposures to the smoke and toxins which originally appeared harmless. Other effects can include damage to the lungs, nervous system, kidneys, liver, bronchitis, emphysema etc. Children have been particularly considered to be at much greater risk because of their body size, and as they inhale more air per Kilogram of body mass than adults do and can absorb proportionately larger quantities of such toxic air.

According to WHO, air pollution kills an estimated seven (7) million people worldwide every year.

Global air quality status

In March 2023, IQAir released its Annual World Air Quality Report of 2022 which revealed alarming details of the world’s most polluted countries, territories, and regions in 2022. The 2022 data was collected from more than 30,000 air quality monitoring stations across 7,323 locations in 131 countries, territories, and regions. The data shows that no African Country met the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline for PM2.5 (annual average of 5 µg/m3 or less).

PM2.5 are fine particles that have a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres and can travel deep into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs and entering the bloodstream.PM2.5 is used as the best measure of air quality due to its prevalence in the environment and a broad range of health effects.

Chad took the undesired lead as the most polluted country in 2022 with 89.7 µg/m3, presenting more than 17 times higher than the WHO PM2.5 annual guideline level. Central and South Asia cities took the biggest portion of the dirty pack of 2022, with 8 out of the world’s 10 cities with the worst air pollution. Though the African continent saw an increase from 13 countries represented in 2021 to 19 countries in the 2022 report, Africa remained the most underrepresented continent in terms of air quality data. Only 19 countries out of 54 African countries have sufficient air quality data.

How is Kampala’s Air quality?

Kampala’s rapid transformation and increasing population come along with impacts on its air quality. A recent quarterly epidemiological bulletin of October–December 2022 published by Uganda’s Institute of Public Health, on its assessment of Kampala City’s air quality trend from January 2020 to June 2022, based on the PM2.5 concentrations, revealed 59 µg/m3of PM2.5 as the 24-hour average (compared to the WHO targeted safe level of 15 µg/m3as the 24-hour average), with the general trend of negligible but significant decrease in air quality from January 2020 to June 2022. Kawempe and Central divisions had high concentrations compared to the other divisions. The assessment concluded that PM2.5 air concentrations in Kampala City exceeded the maximum WHO-recommended levels even in times without vehicle traffic.

IQAir’s 2019 report had previously showed Kampala to have a yearly PM2.5 annual average of 29.1 μg/m³(compared to the WHO targeted annual safe level of 5 µg/m3), giving it the higher end of the ‘moderate’ pollution bracket, and ranking in the 465th place out of all cities ranked worldwide. This pollution is contributed to by many sources including garbage burning.

It is noteworthy that Kampala’s air quality has shown improvement with the 29.1 μg/m³ level of 2019 being a significant improvement from 40.8 μg/m³ in 2018, and 54.3 μg/m³ of 2017, which had put Kampala among the top-most polluted cities of the world at that time.

What do we do?

It is critical to note that the air we breathe is a shared resource, where both the rich and poor, tall and short partake equally, and what someone does to that air affects all of us. It is therefore our collective responsibility to safeguard the air we breathe.

We need to stop the open burning of trash and ensure that the waste is collected and handed over to licenced waste companies, who should ensure the waste is appropriately handled in appropriate waste management facilities. The central government, local governments, city authorities and each one of us are duty-bound to do their part.

As an individual, please sensitise your family members, neighbours etc to the harm caused by this entrenched trashy behaviour of burning waste, or else we and our children will pay for it with our own health. We can collectively do it and create the country we need with clean air for all.

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