The curious case of Cement Dust Pollution in Mabvuku: The healthcare cost and who is paying for it

By Dr Nyasha Manyeruke

WHOSE fault is it? Compensation and reparations? The debate on healthcare and industrial, and air pollution is a global quagmire. Is the industrial industry at fault when it is concurrently spearheading economic growth and job creation? Are the people who continue to live in polluted air partly to blame for their own health circumstances. Clearly these questions have no binary answers (yes or no) because the problem itself is not binary.

Studies have linked cement dust toxins to not only lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, asthma, silicosis, but also endocrine disruption, cancer and infertility. Even acute exposure to cement pollutants can lead to exacerbations of asthma which may require hospitalizations and increasing occurrence of chest infections requiring medical treatment. In the era of covid 19, an economic downturn, rising unemployment and most of the populus not being on any medical aid coverage. The added economic costs of health on already tight budgets are highly unwelcome.

Who is most vulnerable to the worst health outcomes from cement dust exposure? Children! Children! Children! Their young immature lungs tend to bear the brunt of the negative health sequelae. With increasing incidence of asthma, chest infections and cancer noted in global studies and case research studies on children living in close proximity to cement plants.

So who is covering these unexpected healthcare costs? We are! As taxpayers! The most affordable healthcare system in Zimbabwe is under the public sector. In simple terms- the increased incidence of these pollution related diseases in these communities results in increased demands and costs on our struggling healthcare system. Failing to meet these healthcare demands, results in unwell communities, which become limited in their capacity to contribute effectively to the needs of our growing nation.

Can a middle ground be found? Can khaya and other cement companies work hand in hand with their surrounding communities to implement economically sound solutions that result in better outcomes for all?

Industrial Pollution : A modern route to chronic unwellness

It’s truly a wonderful time to be African! The expansions in connectivity, productivity and efficiency, a testimony of the various strides of modern science and technology. However, beneath the looming towering manufacturing plants, exists a population of increasingly unwell people.

Is there a link? Can an equitable solution be found? Should this be of any importance to you? Yes , yes and yes!  It’s about your health, my health and our health, as Zimbabweans, as Africans! We matter! This series of articles serves to examine the unexpected link between the modern African industrial revolution and the increasing continental prevalence of chronic diseases.

A simple definition of terms is always a great starting point. The African industrial revolution is centered around two key phases in history. The first phase being during the colonial era which witnessed a massive growth in roads, dams, manufacturing infrastructure and so on. This phase was set on a background of a majority black rural impoverished population that immediately did not reap the fullness of these advances. The second phase is marked by widespread national independence on the continent and concurrent in globalization, open trade and markets. However this time, there is an increasing black urban populous at the epicenter of the great revolution.

The urban black Zimbabwean population is highlighted by a higher household income, greater standard of living and a growing health economic burden of chronic illnesses. What is a chronic illness? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), this is any medical condition that lasts one year or more and requires ongoing medical attention or limits daily living or both. Examples? That friend of yours with asthma, your uncle with hypertension, your mom the diabetic and that sad story you heard over the radio about a young life cut short by kidney disease.

As a nation we dream big and we dream boldly. We aspire to greatness as one. To become a global manufacturing giant, a captain of industry. To modernize a housing market that is inclusive of all. Above all, quality healthcare for all.

However the biggest of dreams can become a festering ground for the most insidious of nightmares. Mabvuku is one such complicated case. The newly commissioned Khaya cement limited has been one of Zimbabwe’s long standing major producers and economic powerhouses. With multimillion dollar investments in the continued infrastructure development with high prospects for continued job creation. The growing Zimbabwean economy is set to continue to benefit for generations to come.

Interestingly, sites of developmental progression tend to attract communities in search of jobs, housing and a better standard of living. Such is the case of mabvuku. With the local community encroaching closer and closer to the industrial site, so does the rise of air pollution related health issues. All manufacturing production plants have an element of pollution associated with, a well-researched and proven fact. What is however debated on is the extent of the adverse health consequences.

Cement contains various types of chemicals (lime,silica,etc) which most commonly enters the human body via inhalation(breathing). These chemicals have devastating effects on general health, but especially on lung health. Hence the wisdom in cement factory workers being mandated to wear high quality industrial masks while at work to limit inhalational exposure to toxins.

However, for the surrounding communities, the use of industrial quality protective gear constantly is not a realistic achievable norm in the limitation of exposure to cement dust toxins. There has been an increase in reporting on the rising incidence of chest symptoms, infections, and asthma amongst the residents of Mabvuku. The simultaneous rise in economic health burden has yet to be quantified, qualified and most importantly rectified.

What is the economic burden of a population struggling to breathe?

Dr Nyasha Manyeruke is a medical doctor and environmentalist.

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