By Gershom Ndhlovu
The health effects of small-scale stone crushing in Zambia have never been seriously addressed, Chitaku G. Mucheleng’anga reminded me after he read last week’s column, The Roof of Death.
“Your article on asbestos is very good and I would like you to also look at the other/various environmental issues such as silica dust from stone crushing, etc. Indeed asbestos is very dangerous especially in dust form. Groundnuts on an asbestos roof may be difficult to ascertain as the cause of Asbestosis since the mineral comes bound with cement except where/when it (sheet of asbestos) breaks, etc,” Mucheleng’anga wrote on my on-line version of the column. “Silicosis,” he said “results from inhalation of silica dust from any source especially stone quarrying and nothing much is being said or done about it especially in your country!”
Yes indeed, from the mid-1970s and early 1980s after local authorities abandoned large scale construction of houses and people started building their own houses mostly in uncontrolled locations in Lusaka such as Mandevu, Chaisa, Kanyama, Chawama and Chipata compounds, equally uncontrolled stone-crushing and sand quarrying in nearby streams boomed.
Environment effects of such activities are now very visible as the areas in which they were carried out (and still are) such as the area between Chinika and Zambia Breweries, the area east of Chawama and south of Kamwala are scarred with huge and unsightly pits and exposed stones which they keep crushing using crude methods of burning tyres on the rocks to soften them.
As the negative environmental and aesthetic effects were not enough, it is the health of those men, women and children that spend days on end, reducing boulders to 28mm stones for use in construction and the filling up of the lorries that ferry sand from Kabanana, Chikumbi and Mungule areas to the north of the capital city, by young men using shovels with no protection at all that should worry health and environmental authorities.
According to the website, www.lenntech.com, silicon concentrates in no particular organ of the body but is found mainly in connective tissues and skin. Silicon is non-toxic as the element and in all its natural forms, namely silica and silicates, which are the most abundant.
“Elemental silicon is an inert material, which appears to lack the property of causing fibrosis in lung tissue. However, slight pulmonary lesions have been reported in laboratory animals from intratracheal injections of silicon dust. Silicon dust has little adverse affect on lungs and does not appear to produce significant organic disease or toxic effects when exposures are kept beneath exposure limits. Silicon may cause chronic respiratory effects.
“Silicon crystalline irritates the skin and eyes on contact. Inhalation will cause irritation to the lungs and mucus membrane. Irritation to the eyes will cause watering and redness. Reddening, scaling, and itching are characteristics of skin inflammation,” the website says.
Minimal exposure is harmless, according to the above passage, but think of people that have been crushing stones and loading sand on lorries for years and because of their challenged economic status, also have poor access to medical facilities.
Unless things have changed a lot in the last few years, visiting some of our townships exposes one to people who are in chronically poor health from unknown causes.
It is not by accident that ZCCM, and I hope new investors, used to take its employees for regular medical check ups at the Occupation Health Centre in Kitwe which we used to call Silicosis. Those that failed the medical examinations were either retired or redeployed to areas where they were not exposed to dust.
I would like to suggest that in the spirit of Keep Zambia Clean issues such as these raised here are holistically addressed, laws and regulations strengthened and those that transgress them are punished. I have come to believe that developed countries are not only clean but also healthy because of the strict enforcement of the laws in all areas.