Environmental Pollution: A health problem

Up to now pollution has been looked upon as an environmental problem; it’s no doubt the case, but it must also be considered as a health problem.

A retired mechanic was once puzzled to find during his evening shower that his arms and face were covered with a similar coating of greasy stuff, soot and grime as when he was working. He used to spend his afternoon relaxing on his balcony inhaling what he thought was fresh air. His house overlooked a bus-stop where buses mostly disembark passengers every three or four minutes throughout the day till late evening. It took him some time to realize that the coating of grime was the result of emission from buses. Subsequently he closed all the doors and windows on the frontage of his house to protect himself and his family from air pollution.

Recently, a friend told me how that his neighbour, a strong, able bodied and hardworking man in his 50s passed away after 10 days in hospital from a lung infection. He was a lorry driver, driving one of the waste carrier lorries, and he was always either driving his lorry or spending most of his Saturdays cleaning the vehicle. One suspects that the source of his lung infection might be traced to the waste to which he was exposed during most of his time spent at work.

To regard pollution as merely an environmental problem traps many of our citizens into believing it is a distant and long-term threat that they can afford to ignore. They do not feel affected personally and directly. They may even take comfort in the fact that the air we breathe in Mauritius is still amongst the purest on earth, possibly not because there is no pollution as such, but because we are blessed with a sea breeze and the South East Trade Winds all the year round which sweep away much of our polluted air…”


Many sources and causes of pollution

These real life stories are just two examples of how pollution of various kinds and sources are putting in peril the lives of so many of our countrymen. They also are an indication of the lack of awareness among the public and the indifference of the authorities to the dangers that pollution poses to the health of our citizens. Some might argue that that not every house is situated near a bus-stop, or that only a small proportion of the population have their dwellings on the main roads or on the motorways where pollution is very intense. They might even lack empathy for the tragic loss which many families suffer. Nevertheless any risk to the health and life of our citizens is a cause for serious concern.

Everyday we come across people working in dangerous and polluted situations, whether they are working in occupations related to waste, in petrol stations or on oil tanker lorries without any protective gear at all, not forgetting the many traffic policemen spending the whole day or even a lifetime on the roads. Apart from air pollution, we also know that in many workplaces, including industrial premises, workers suffer not only from air and noise but also from different kinds of pollution, to realize at only a late stage of the toll on their health.

Up to now pollution has been looked upon as an environmental problem; it’s no doubt the case, but it must also be considered as a health problem. To regard pollution as merely an environmental problem traps many of our citizens into believing it is a distant and long-term threat that they can afford to ignore. They do not feel affected personally and directly. They may even take comfort in the fact that the air we breathe in Mauritius is still amongst the purest on earth, possibly not because there is no pollution as such, but because we are blessed with a sea breeze and the South East Trade Winds all the year round which sweep away much of our polluted air.

Some may point out that mortality from respiratory diseases is relatively low in Mauritius but they overlook the fact that the incidence of morbidity from such diseases can be quite high.

Admittedly some of the respiratory diseases facing our children and adults, especially the elderly, may be associated with the use of all kinds of cleaning solutions in the home or the early exposure of children to air-conditioned rooms. It is a fact that various kinds of air, water and noise pollution are contributory factors to many diseases, and the experts tell us that air pollution also contributes to cardiovascular diseases and strokes.

Further, both towns and villages are affected. Another nuisance is the intermittent use of horns in residential areas, and the rattling of engines by neighbours at odd hours in the night and in the early hours of the morning – sometimes on a daily basis. Even those going to some of the big shopping malls are not spared from the foul smell from the sewage drains.

Gaps in tackling the problem

In spite of the considerable efforts put in by the authorities to mitigate pollution in the island, it remains a major threat to health partly because many of the laws and regulations are outdated and enforcement authorities remain largely ineffective. There is no study on the impact of pollution on schoolchildren in schools located along roads with dense traffic; in some countries dense traffic is restricted near schools because of the toxic air emissions from the vehicles.

However, the efforts of the authorities to combat pollution in the island remain patchy despite the existence of a specialized agency to protect and monitor the environment and enforce measures against pollution. Not only are there very often gaps in the law, the environmental agency and other authorities lack the resources to monitor and enforce the law. For example, a survey of traffic noise is rarely carried out and when one is done it is only between morning and noon; what happens in the evening or late evening is completely ignored.

Not surprisingly solutions proposed are inadequate or even half-baked and half-hearted because some of the authorities ignore citizens’ rights but defer to corporate and pro-government lobbies. Some even suspect some kind of collusion with shady companies. The chopping of trees at Vandermeersch Street is another example of state-centric approach to development, oblivious to the rights of citizens, particularly their right to health and life. The sufferings of many, both physical and mental, which many undergo at present and will quite likely persist in the future are not important to the decision makers. Yet a productive dialogue with stakeholders would have unlocked some imaginative and creative solutions.

The Environment Protection Act does recognize that pollution of various kinds is detrimental to the health of our citizens. An expanded definition of our fundamental right to life provided in our constitution would have included the right to health. There is certainly an urgent need to revisit the laws relating to traffic pollution in residential areas. Many of the sugar estates and other property developers still obtain approvals to sell land for residential units along motorways in spite of the fact that toxic air and noise will affect the health of our citizens. In their race to make money at all costs, they make no provision for even a green belt to protect future residents while the authorities granting morcellement permits remain indifferent, thus appearing to be in collusion in such dealings.

On the other hand, in other cases violations of regulations are ignored. Local and other authorities have made regulations to prevent pollution of streams and rivers, but these are rarely enforced. A visit to the catchment area around Bagatelle Dam would reveal that in a number of residential estates, VRS and other private property development projects, installation for sewage facilities in many houses have not followed the guidelines laid down by the authorities, which can only result in the contamination of streams and rivers and underground water which feed into the dam.

With the flight of the middle- and upper-middle classes to areas supposedly free from pollution, it is the built-up areas from Port-Louis to Curepipe and in the larger villages which will suffer even more from all kinds of pollution in the future. There are hopeful signs that the legal authorities are increasingly implementing the laws with greater vigour against those who have violated the law and threatened the peace and quiet of our citizens. At the district courts, there are cases where proprietors have been made to pull down their walls or structures in addition to paying fines. Some have been convicted for rattling the engines of lorries in the early hours of the morning, disturbing the peace in the neighbourhoods. Tougher laws and enforcement are a necessity to bring our citizens as well as the corporate sector to respect the rights of others.

Only recently an Indian architect, Brinda Somaya, reminded us that an architect must be conscious of the space. “It is important to understand the site, to walk around it, observe the nature of the soil. Climate, vegetation and local resources are significant factors in design. One has to be sensitive to the historical and cultural context of the area as well.” In other words, as she says, “an architect needs to go beyond the boundaries of just buildings”. This may look like a textbook advice to architects but most of the time many just pay lip-service to these practices. Likewise, every citizen and every professional should take a wider view of the many environmental and health issues. It is only then that that we can inch towards a safer, healthier and more livable environment for all.

 


* Published in print edition on 6 April 2018

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