PhD student Alhaji Ibrahim Sankoh meets scavengers living on waste dumps and farm workers working with dangerous pesticides while researching the damage caused by widespread chemical contamination on the people and environment of his homeland.
I was born and brought up in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was classified as the poorest country in the world in the first decade of the 21st century.
I know that chemical contamination is very widespread in my country and that there are many practices that expose people to dangerous chemicals. For my PhD, I wanted to examine some of these practices.
Firstly I wanted to look at Freetown's waste dumps. There are many illegal dumps in Freetown but I decided to visit the two legal, government approved dumps, so conditions there are as good as it gets.
Even in these official sites, dumping is not controlled so you get industrial waste, hospital waste and domestic waste all mixed up. I wanted to find out if persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the waste get into the food chain and into people. There are a good number of routes for this to happen.
Chemicals entering the food chain
Firstly there are many people - scavengers - living and depending on the dump sites. They have makeshift houses there, rear animals such as pigs and poultry, grow and sell food.
The scavengers pick up electronic waste, such as old mobile phones, which have been exported from developed countries but don’t work and end up on the dumps. They remove the circuit boards and export them to China for reconditioning or burn them to get at the copper, and this releases the POPs into the atmosphere.
Burning is rampant and indiscriminate on the dump sites, not only to get at materials but also to clear space for agriculture and make the soil more fertile. Then this soil is used to grow food.
I collected soil samples, water samples, plant samples and air samples to test for POPs and my initial results show high levels of POPs in the soil.
The problem with pesticides
The second part of my PhD is looking at the use of pesticides in the rice fields. Some of the pesticides used in Sierra Leone, are banned in the UK. Most are smuggled into the country illegally, others are distributed by the Government.
What the Government wants is for Sierra Leone to be self-sufficient in rice. We used to export rice but we became one of the largest rice importers as people moved from agriculture to mining. The Government wants to reverse that, and doesn’t seem to care how this happens.
I interviewed a parliamentarian who farms 100 acres and wanted to remain anonymous. He said it is illegal to bring toxic chemicals into the country and that, theoretically, there are government controls on the use of pesticides but that these don't work. Even pesticides coming from the Government, which should go directly to agriculturalists, end up in local markets and get sold to local vendors because of corruption.
He confessed that most pesticides are not labelled, even those from government sources, and that the vendors and farmers don’t know how to use them safely. Even when they are labelled, instructions are often in French and the farmers are usually illiterate.
Observing farmers’ behaviour
I conducted interviews with about 500 farmers across the country in all the regions as well as carrying out focus group discussions with young farmers and women. I also observed how they used pesticides on the farms.
When I talked to farmers about the potential dangers they said they always take care and do not eat on the farm during the application of pesticides but this is not what I observed.
I saw people handle these toxic chemicals with no protection. I saw one man mixing rice with the pesticide using his bare hands and, just after doing this, he ate with his hands without washing them, just rubbing them with mud.
Most of the time these farmers do not go to hospitals if they get ill they depend on local herbs. I was there when a man who was applying pesticides on the land had an attack and became unconscious, he almost died. All that his fellow workers did to help was to expose him to air and give him palm oil. After some time he regained consciousness.
Some areas have protected drinking water but others do not. I observed people drinking water which pesticides had leached into. Pesticides are also used to kill animals as a means of slaughter, and the animals are then being eaten by people.
Investigating the health impacts
I wanted to know the level of health problems caused by these pesticides and how these are handled by healthcare workers. I spoke to about 100 healthcare workers and was shocked by their ignorance and lack of understanding of the issue. They know it is a problem but don’t act on that knowledge.
For instance one of the chemicals, Chlopyrifos, is very harmful to humans. It affects an enzyme acetyl choline-esterase and leads to nervous disorder, headaches, nausea, so many problems. I expected health workers to be checking the level of this enzyme in people using this chemical but this is not happening.
I set up two experimental plots of 3 acres, one on a riverine ecology (connected to a river), and the other on boliland (flat highly fertile low lying land that gets water from the sky or streams). I cultivated rice on both plots during the rainy season, and treated the rice plants with the most commonly used pesticides and then took samples of the rice produced and soil.
I would like to make recommendations to the Government about dealing with these pesticides. There need to be stiff measures to regulate the import of these chemicals into the country, and also to regulate their use and make sure they are always handled by qualified, trained people.
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