Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Modern Environmental Health Hazards: A Public Health Issue of Increasing Significance in Africa

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Modern Environmental Health Hazards: A Public Health Issue of Increasing Significance in Africa

Article excerpt

OBJECTIVES: Traditional hazards such as poor sanitation currently account for most of Africa's environmentally related disease burden. However, with rapid development absent appropriate safeguards for environment and health, modern environmental health hazards (MEHHs) may emerge as critical contributors to the continent's disease burden. We review recent evidence of human exposure to and health effects from MEHHs, and their occurrence in environmental media and consumer products. Our purpose is to highlight the growing significance of these hazards as African countries experience urbanization, industrial growth, and development.

DATA SOURCES: We reviewed published epidemiologic, exposure, and environmental studies of chemical agents such as heavy metals and pesticides.

DATA SYNTHESIS: The body of evidence demonstrates ongoing environmental releases of MEHHs and human exposures sometimes at toxicologically relevant levels. Several sources of MEHHs in environmental media have been identified, including natural resource mining and processing and automobile exhaust. Biomonitoring studies provided direct evidence of human exposure to metals such as mercury and lead and pesticides such as P,P'-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and organophosphates. Land and water resource pollution and industrial air toxics are areas of significant data gaps, notwithstanding the presence of several emitting sources.

CONCLUSION: Unmitigated MEHH releases and human exposure have implications for Africa's disease burden. For Africans encumbered by conditions such as malnutrition that impair resilience to toxicologic challenges, the burden may be higher. A shift in public health policy toward accommodating the emerging diversity in Africa's environmental health issues is necessary to successfully alleviate the burden of avoidable ill health and premature death for all its communities now and in the future.

KEY WORDS: Africa, environmental health, hazards. Environ Health Perspect 117:863-870 (2009). doi:10.1289/ehp.0800126 available via [Online 29 January 2009]


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about one-third of Africa's disease burden is attributable to environmental hazards (Pruss-Ustun and Corvalan 2006). The major contributing risk factors to environmental disease burden in the continent are traditional environmental health hazards such as lack of access to safe water, indoor air pollution from solid fuel combustion, and lack of sanitation and hygiene. However, with notable economic growth the past decade (World Bank 2008), urbanization, and continuing industrialization, modern environmental health hazards (MEHHs) can be expected to eventually emerge and perhaps supersede traditional hazards as critical contributors to environmental disease burden in the continent. The transition to MEHHs is in progress, as evidenced by the combination of preindustrial- and industrial-era environmental health issues confronting many African communities (WHO 2002). Assuring population health and well-being in the near future, therefore, will depend not only on how well traditional hazards and risks are managed but also on the degree to which MEHHs and their potential impacts are prevented or controlled.

MEHHs are products of rapid development in the absence of health and environment safeguards, as well as the unsustainable consumption of natural resources (WHO 1997). MEHHs include, but are not limited to, water pollution from populated areas and industry, urban air pollution from automobiles, radiation hazards, land degradation, climate change,

and emerging and reemerging infectious diseases (Corvalan et al. 1999). The occurrence of several MEHHs and their sources has been noted in industrialized and urbanized African communities [United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2002]. Industrial pollution, in particular, is becoming highly concentrated in growing urban areas, and as a result, the continent's pollution intensity (pollution generated per unit of production output) is among the highest in the world [United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) 2004]. …

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