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Moosa: Launch of Centre for Occupational & Environmental Health, Univ of Natal

10th March 2003


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Date: 10/03/2003
Source: Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism
Title: Moosa: Launch of Centre for Occupational & Environmental Health, Univ of Natal


Let me use this opportunity to extend my gratitude to the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine for extending an invitation to address this opening on behalf of the government.

The university should be commended for its efforts to put occupational and environmental health in the spotlight. As a modern society, South Africa has become more and more industrialised, however, with industrialisation the threat to the environment has become real.

Humankind has always been in touch with the environment. Therefore, any negative change that occurs in the environment will immediately impact on people's health. We have developed an extensive array of chemicals and products to control disease, increase food production and provide convenience in our everyday living. These by-products of our lifestyles, many of which are well-intentioned chemicals, are a threat to human health, both at the workplace and in the environment.

We have witnessed the poisoning of our people at workplaces, such as the mines where asbestos was mined, at waste recycling plants such as Thor Chemicals in Cato Ridge where mercury poisoning killed and maimed many people. We have also experienced poisoning through air pollution, such as the chlorine fumes at Polifin in Umbongitwini, where lots of school children were affected, and the South Durban Basin air pollution. There are many such pollution-related incidences that call for an urgent response.

In recent times, there has been awareness raised on depleted resources, the thinning of the ozone layer that increases the risk of cancer, and eye cataracts; green house gases and global warming that is predicted to submerge parts of the planet, reducing human and wildlife habitat; air pollution of various kinds causing respiratory diseases, cancers, birth deformities and neurological disorders. Science has lead to this awareness.

In many developing countries we are still faced with a problem where workers are often illiterate and untrained in the proper use and disposal of toxic chemicals and pollutants. For instance, they may lack the knowledge of the hazards of chemicals such as pesticides and how to prevent harm to people and the environment. Global industrialisation and world trade in chemicals has grown faster than the flow of information and awareness about associated health and environmental risks.

The global trade on toxic chemicals and hazardous materials has regarded respect for human rights an obstacle to its development. In our era of globalisation, chemical companies increasingly move around assets, products and waste on a global chessboard to maximise profits and minimise costs. Chemical companies are using the variations in national environmental and health laws to export restricted pesticides and technologies to poorer countries. They shop around for the cheapest labour costs and weakest environmental and public health protections. This cannot be allowed to happen any longer. Our communities need to be protected from this injustice.

Of equal threat to human health and the environment is the disposal of health care waste, illegal dumping of waste, non-complying incinerators that continuously release toxic substances such as dioxins and furans, lack of emergency response mechanisms in cases of accidents, lack of waste audits and a registration system for all waste generators, transporters and for disposal facilities.

It is important to note that the production of dioxins and furans, which are products of the combustion of poly vinyl chloride (PVC), can be drastically reduced and avoided if an integrated management of healthcare waste is implemented.

My department, together with the Department of Health, is finalising such a management strategy. We believe that this intervention will ensure, among other things, the reduction of PVC and similar sources of toxic air pollutants from source through proper sorting and separation of waste.

For these reasons, incineration will remain an option for treating medical waste. Other technological options will be considered based on their efficiency in achieving the desired goal of safely treating medical waste. In the Draft Air Quality Bill, which is currently being developed, provision will be made for stricter emission standards for incinerators.

It is through the efforts of the health profession and the public that government has developed regulations to protect the citizens from the adverse effects of environmental pollution. An example in point is the tobacco legislation, where the citizens are protected from effects of secondary or passive smoking. Chemical companies and other polluting industries may find themselves in a situation similar to tobacco companies, burdened by multi-billion dollar lawsuits. This success was possible because of the available research results that link causes to effects.

There are opportunities for the scientific community to contribute to sustainable development, not only by developing indicators and assessing achievements. It is also about using research results for policy development. Health risk assessment is just one example of protective tools that can support decision-making. In order to protect human health and the environment, we need to incorporate the values of traditional environmental knowledge with science, through raising awareness and using sustainable development programmes based on equality.

Education and research in universities are essential for improving the consciousness of people on health and environmental issues. Students should be encouraged to have knowledge of environmental and health problems related to their field of study to enable them to work in an interdisciplinary and practical setting. In turn, they will educate themselves and society to become fully aware of the importance of sustainable development.

The concept of environmental injustice should be a guiding principle to restore contaminated sites and the clean-up of contaminated sediments. My department supports initiatives that shift corporate culture in the direction of environmental responsibility and stewardship. Labelling and public access to information with respect to potential chemical exposures and the environmental fate of products should be done where this information is reliably available. Expansion of environmental health information needs to be communicated to health professionals and the concerned communities in which they operate.

Environmental health must be added to the communicable disease and chronic disease prevention efforts of the public health community.

This Centre will be involved in education and training on environmental health. Hazard and risk communication is equally important to prevent accidents and promote occupational safety. The public needs to be much more aware of the potential exposure to toxic chemicals that can interfere with human development and function. SA citizens have a right to know what chemicals they are exposed to at the workplace and their homes. Labelling of many products such as plastics with respect to potential chemical exposures and environmental fate is becoming feasible as our understanding of endocrine disrupting and similar chemicals grows. At the workplace, solid information as a basis for public environmental concern should become the driving force for change through informed choice.

Monitoring and medical surveillance programmes are essential in order to provide an early warning system for new environmental and human health problems in South Africa. New indicators may be required to respond to new ecosystems and health concerns related to chemicals that affect human development and function.

Research centres such as this should continue their on-going effort to identify and standardise biological indicators for human health. They should harmonise their monitoring throughout the country, identifying the best indicators rather than duplicating efforts or multiplying the number of monitoring parameters. Harmonisation will ensure that in the future, databases can be commonly used, and will allow sharing of testing and evaluating chemicals of concern.

Human health concerns are best addressed by actual monitoring of the body burdens of contaminants to identify the populations at greatest risk of exposure. Risk estimates, such as cancer risks, are not enough. Human health surveillance is warranted for reproductive and respiratory outcomes and some cancers.

I am pleased that this Centre will concern itself with issues of research and education in airborne and respiratory diseases; issues around food, traditional and allopathic approaches, health care waste, wastewater and sanitation, waterborne diseases, workplace, institutional, home and public health.

These challenges have led to one conclusion that the safe management of healthcare waste is essential for community and environmental health.

With regard to those incinerators that are not operated properly and therefore continue to expose our communities to harmful pollution, my department will ensure that these are closely monitored and where necessary, shut down without exception.

Once again I would like to extend my gratitude to you for inviting me to address this occasion that assists us as government to address issues that are of concern to the communities.

Thank you.

Issued by Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism
10 March 2003


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