Depending on the strength and direction of the wind on a particular day, residents of one of Harare’s larger and busier shopping centres at Kuwadzana 4 get a whiff of incinerated medical waste floating into their yards and homes. They are accusing the local authority of turning a blind eye to their health concerns.
“We have tried to engage our councillor on the issue,” says Mathilda Rondora, a mother of two who spends most of her time at the shopping complex’s market place selling fruit and vegetables.
“Council has not done anything in response to our concerns,” she moans, clearing her throat after a chest-deep cough.
The object at the eye of the storm is the clinic’s incinerator that was constructed during a time when the population was small. Over the years, the population and built up area has grown, and the facility is now right in the thick of residential developments – houses and shops.
The clinic’s catchment also includes Dzivaresekwa, Mufakose, Kambuzuma and Warren Park.
Rondora’s is not a lonely voice; other people at the centre come to support her concerns.
“We are now getting used to the pungent smell and sometimes do not actually notice except when we have been away for some time,” says 32-year-old Edgar Chitambo, an airtime vendor conducting his business from a wheelchair.
Most of the residents interviewed concur and although they could not provide a portfolio of data or evidence to back up their concerns, believe the rising numbers of incidences of respiratory illnesses, lung infections and other related coughs are due to the effects of the emissions from the incinerator.
An officer from the city council’s urban planning department at Cleveland House doesn’t agree. He says the level of fumes is not enough to cause panic among residents.
“Of course, it’s a fact the incinerator is in the centre of a heavily populated residential area,” he says, “but the height of the pipe itself is enough to show the emissions are not dangerous. If the levels of danger were detrimental, it would have been taller to cover a larger dispersal area.”
Speaking on conditions of anonymity, the official concurred that medical institutions, like clinics and hospitals, generate large volumes of waste that can be highly toxic and infectious.
Burning and dumping this waste threatens human and environmental health. “At Kuwadzana,” he explains, “the only burning taking place is the usual reception-area trash and operating-room waste, like bandages.”
The council officer explained that as health practitioners they know and understand that “incineration is a leading source of highly toxic dioxin, mercury, lead and other dangerous air pollutants that threaten human health and the environment.”
He says that as a local authority, they “do not want to expose communities downwind to toxic by-products such as dioxins and mercury, and generate potentially hazardous ash by burning our waste in small incinerators without pollution controls.”
The officer revealed that they took such waste to larger incinerators like the one at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
Most medical incinerators billow out fumes that can be dangerous to residents and should be sited away from residential areas, as they are a health hazard.
Residents, however, are not convinced – pleading with Council to move the clinic incinerator.
Airtime vendor Chitambo, joined by several youths milling around the shopping centre, insists they should move the incinerator elsewhere. “Like a dumping site, the waste being burnt produces smoke, polluting the fresh air that we are supposed to breathe.”