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Weak Laws, Lax Enforcement Dirty Nairobi's Air

Technicolor smoke pours from the chimney at the PZ Cussons cosmetics factory in Nairobi’s Baba Dogo neighborhood.

“Sometimes it comes out red. Sometimes the smoke is yellow. Sometimes the smoke is green,” said resident Evan Ngare. “You don’t know what chemicals are used there.”

Ngare and friends play soccer in the factory’s shadow, on a dirt field at the edge of a trash dump. He hopes soccer will be his way out of the slum.

According to Ngare, when the factory’s smoke blows their way, they can feel it.

“It’s very strong and at times you get it even under your chest,” Ngare said. “You feel there’s something inside you.”

Daily hazards

Factory smoke, vehicle pollution, trash burning and more are daily hazards for Nairobi’s citizens, according to health experts. But they say pollution laws are too lax and enforcement is weak, with consequences for the entire city.

Around the world, nearly 4 million people die of complications from outdoor air pollution, according to the United Nations.

People breathing polluted air are at higher risk of pneumonia, heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and more.

There is almost no data on how bad the situation is in Nairobi. But at a U.N. Environment Program event launching a low-cost air pollution monitor, Kenyan environment secretary Judi Wakhungu said it’s serious.

“The few research studies carried out suggest that many Nairobi residents are exposed on a regular basis to elevated levels of fine particulate air pollution,” she said.

Factory neighborhood

Homes, shops and food stalls line the streets surrounding the PZ Cussons factory. It’s a common situation in Kenya. Industries attract workers, and “informal settlements” — slums — spring up on adjacent land. Formal city planning is absent. City governments often don’t recognize the settlements.

“I don’t think we’ve thought what that will do to our health,” said air quality expert Kanyiva Muindi with the nonprofit African Population and Health Research Center.

PZ Cussons says the smoke comes from burning macadamia nut shells, a waste-to-energy project that has helped the company cut its carbon footprint.

Spokeswoman Eileen Donnelly said around 2,000 tons of macadamia nut shells have replaced about 130,000 gallons of furnace oil each year over the last three years.

“It is common to have black and sometimes yellow smoke from the burning of macadamia nut shells,” spokeswoman Eileen Donnelly said in an email, “but we ensure that we are still within all permissible limits.”

She provided an auditor’s report that states the plant’s emissions do not pose a hazard to the environment.

Legal hazard

Experts said the emissions may be within permissible limits, but they are still a hazard. Fine particulate matter in the smoke penetrates deep into the lungs, carrying toxic chemicals.

Muindi noted that the plume travels far beyond the factory’s slum neighborhood.

“It could actually be carrying to the city center and beyond, to even most of the residential areas that are considered rich,” she said. “So, we are all at risk.”

Muindi also said existing pollution laws often are not enforced, a shortcoming environment secretary Wakhungu acknowledged. Interviewed at the UNEP event, she described enforcement as “a work in progress.”

“We’re trying to enhance our ability to enforce and to implement,” she said. “It’s a tall order, but we’re doing our best.”

The National Environment Management Authority and Nairobi county officials declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

Muindi says they should be held accountable.

“People should know that this is their right. We are entitled to a clean environment. The constitution tells us that,” she said. “So, we should actually take it up for ourselves and complain when we can.”

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.