We can’t breathe! How Dandora dumpsite is wasting generations of women away

Winnie Wanjira, a waste picker at the Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi. While men frequently take on more supervisory roles at the garbage site, women often spend the entire day rummaging.

Photo credit: Photo | Louise Donovan

What you need to know:

  • In 2007, the UNEP warned that Dandora posed a serious health threat to those who work and live nearby.
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals on dumpsites can result in cancer, respiratory problems and skin infections, scientists and environmental campaigners say.
  • Women are described as the backbone of waste and recycling industries.
  • One 59-year-old woman who has worked at Dandora for nearly three decades is being treated for uterine cancer.

As Winnie Wanjira rifles through mountains of waste at the Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi, it’s not the discarded needles that bother her most; nor the metal scraps that could shred her skin. It’s not even the hot sun making the 36-year-old feel dizzy as she struggles to fill her sack with plastic bottles.

Today, the mother of six is anxious about her period. It’s heavy, she says. She spent the last two days lying down in her windowless, single-room home, unable to move. “The bleeding… is no joke,” she says.

“I cannot come to work; I cannot go anywhere.”

Now, on the third day, she’s back, hoping the jumper tied around her waist will cover any stains.

“And it’s, like, black, not even the normal colour of periods,” she says. “That place… It kills. It really kills.”

In 2007, the United Nations Environment Programme warned that Dandora posed a serious health threat to those who work and live nearby. Yet, while it is understood that exposure to the toxic chemicals found on dumpsites can result in cancer, respiratory problems and skin infections, scientists and environmental campaigners say little attention has been paid to their impact on the reproductive health of waste pickers, who are often women.

Materials like plastic and e-waste contain chemicals that studies show can disturb the body’s hormone systems. As ever-higher volumes of trash continue to end up in landfills, informal workers like Ms Wanjira will be on the frontlines of what scientists call an emerging issue of global concern.

Plastic is known to leach hazardous chemicals into the environment, some of which have been linked to pregnancy loss and irregular menstrual cycles.

Photo credit: Photo | Louise Donovan

For years, acrid smoke has billowed across this sprawling dumpsite, which covers an area the size of 22 football pitches. On windy days, clouds of smoke engulf nearby neighbourhoods.

“You can’t breathe,” a woman, who works in a nearby pharmacy, tells The Voice and The Fuller Project.

It’s not just an issue at Dandora. Across Kenya’s dumpsites, a potentially toxic mix of everything from empty milk boxes to old tyres are being destroyed through open burning, says a 2017 report by the government and the United Nations.

Around the world, many of the estimated 20 million waste pickers in countries like India, Ghana and Vietnam likely face similar health concerns. Estimates vary, but studies show this informal workforce is often mostly women.

“This is a global problem,” says Griffins Ochieng’, executive director for the Centre for Environmental Justice and Development (Cejad), a Nairobi-based NGO focusing on the problem of plastic waste.

 “Any dumpsite – anywhere there is plastic pollution – women will be impacted,” he says.

This is because most materials that end up as waste contain toxic substances. Plastics and e-waste are known to contain and leach hazardous chemicals into the environment, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which have been linked to reduced fertility, pregnancy loss and irregular menstrual cycles, among other conditions. Burning them releases highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals, with reported similar effects. The toxins are not only in the air, but also in the soil and water, and for the waste pickers who eat from the landfills, in their food, too.

While men frequently take on more supervisory roles, women often spend the entire day rummaging, says Ochieng’. “They’re in the thick of things...”

In low-income countries, over 90 per cent of waste is either dumped in the open, or burned.

It’s why waste pickers, like Ms Wanjira, are often described as the backbone of waste and recycling industries. They’ve stepped in, an informal, often invisible workforce relied upon by governments across Africa. Spending long days bent over, picking up and sorting waste discarded in streets and dumpsites, they recover more recyclable materials than formal waste management systems, yet represent a marginalised population.

About 3,000 to 5,000 waste pickers scatter across Dandora’s hills every day. Local organisations estimate the numbers reach nearly 50,000, across the country, although there is no official total.

Despite being declared full in 2001, Dandora is still in operation. Every day, another 850 tonnes of waste from the city's 4.3 million residents enter its overflowing walls.

Photo credit: Photo | Louise Donovan

If Ms Wanjira’s heavy, painful period had been a one-off, she might have been less worried. But she’s faced the same issue – often twice a month – for roughly 20 years, she says. When she was about 13 and her family could no longer afford school fees, she dropped out and started working with her mother, Jane, who was also a waste picker. Within several years, Wanjira’s menstruation problems started, she says.

One 59-year-old woman who has worked at Dandora for nearly three decades is being treated for uterine cancer.

“We hear these issues all the time,” says Joyce Wangari, a 23-year-old waste picker who has worked at Dandora since she was 12. She only gets her periods every two to three months. “It’s so common.”

Joyce Wangari, 23, who works at the dumpsite says she only gets her periods every two to three months.

Photo credit: Photo | Louise Donovan

There’s no definitive proof that the problems these waste pickers experienced are caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, but it’s highly likely to be an underlying factor, according to Sara Brosché, science adviser at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (Ipen), a global network dedicated to eliminating toxic chemicals.

“The evidence is strong,” she says. “But the connection between toxic chemicals and impacts on women hasn’t really been talked about that much. It’s such an important but overlooked issue.”

Daniel Wainaina, chief officer for public health in Nakuru County, says waste pickers’ health is not individually analysed but that it would be “an interesting area for prospective studies”. He did not answer specific questions about the impact of toxic chemicals on reproductive health.

Neither the Nairobi County government nor the national governing body that oversees environmental policies, replied to multiple requests for comment.

Doctors in several medical clinics near the dumpsites point out the workers’ choice of family planning likely plays a significant role. Many birth control options, including the pill, implants and intrauterine devices (IUD), can produce menstrual cycle changes. Genetics, nutrition and poor living, and working conditions may also play a part. Most waste pickers handle trash without gloves or masks, and they often live near, or on the dumpsites, intensifying their exposure to health risks.

Yet one-third of those interviewed say a medical professional informed them their reproductive health issues either were or could be connected to their working environment. Some started picking trash as adults, and say they had no reproductive issues before then. Others say they aren’t using any contraception, or their problems persisted after they stopped taking the pill or removed the implant. Several say they started taking hormonal contraception with hopes of regulating their menstruation – often with little success.

“Before I came here, my periods were normal,” says one waste picker, whose name we are withholding due to safety concerns. “But then it became heavy, and so many times in a month.” She began picking trash when she was roughly 30 years old. Now 58, she is no longer menstruating, likely due to menopause. “But that smoke enters your body. You feel weak, so weak.

“Also the things that we’re sitting on,” she continues, pointing to the brightly coloured bags filled with shreds of plastic film piled up beneath us.

“They have chemicals in them. You never know if they affect you, but eventually you start feeling pain. In my chest, mainly, and around my abdomen and back. When I sit down, I feel like something very sharp is piercing me.”

A waste picker sifts through rubbish, hunting for plastic, metal, wood and anything else of value to sell to recycling facilities.

Photo credit: Photo| Louise Donovan

Considered virtually worthless 20 years ago, plastic is now in high demand. Ms Wanjira can sell a 1kg bag of plastic bottles to middlemen or traders for the equivalent of Sh13. On a good day, she earns roughly Sh290; on a bad one, just Sh80. As demand for packaged, mass-produced products has grown, plastic production has exploded, overwhelming the world’s ability to deal with it.

Only nine per cent is successfully recycled, with the bulk ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Unless action is taken to limit its use, plastic production and disposal are projected to triple by 2060.

“It’s completely out of control,” says Ochieng’.

As plastics degrade into micro plastics or are burned, people who live near dumping sites or the surrounding environment face health risks from toxic chemicals that have been labelled probable carcinogens.

Yet, studies indicate just how easily those chemicals can find their way into our food.

“Come,” says Ms Wanjira, leading the way across a makeshift wooden bridge towards her home. The water in the river below is a murky grey, old plastic containers littering the banks. Inside, her mother, Jane, sits quietly threading small orange beads onto string. She now sells bracelets to earn money, having quit working at Dandora several years ago.

“I was constantly sick,” she says of her 40 years picking waste. Jane first started in the early 80s, several years before Wanjira was born. While her periods were never impacted, she says, she now suffers from diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure.

Jane’s now in her early 50s, and it is possible her health issues are age-related, says Pauliina Damdimopoulou, a senior researcher in chemicals and female fertility at the Karolinska Institutet, a medical university in Sweden.

“Maybe she would have gotten sick anyway,” says Damdimopoulou. “But it does sound like the environment is so toxic that most health issues could be attributed to it.”

For second-generation waste pickers like Wanjira, the health risks are greater, adds Damdimopoulou. As chemicals in the body of a pregnant or lactating person may transfer to a foetus or infant via the placenta or through breast milk, it’s possible they were exposed before they were even born, she says.

“And the longer you’re exposed to these chemicals, the higher the levels,” says Damdimopoulou.

Twelve years ago, when Wanjira was pregnant with twins, she felt a pressure in what she describes as her private parts, but tests from the hospital showed no issues, she says. After previously losing two pregnancies – one through miscarriage, the other a stillbirth – she decided to take it easy. Doctors had already told her toxins from the dumpsite were impacting her menstrual cycle, and she wanted to protect herself.

The twins arrived safely but they have asthma. Another child has epilepsy, she says. She can’t afford the regular Sh4,800 for their inhalers, instead using those she finds discarded on the dumpsite. “I don’t look at the expiry date, which I know is risky.”

She remembers a doctor suggesting the twins were impacted in her uterus by the toxins she inhaled at the dumpsite. “But there is nothing I can do,” she says. “My kids must eat.”

Rita Mokhwana, a nurse in a nearby clinic in Dandora, says she isn’t surprised by the waste pickers’ problems. She estimates about half her patients work on the dumpsite. Miscarriages are a daily routine, and she treats three to four people a week, with menstruation issues. Majority are not on birth control.

“Mostly the cause is the dumpsite – the smoke, pregnant women overworking themselves,” she says.

Many waste pickers are reluctant to voice their concerns out of fear the county government could close the dumpsite. Most know the environment is not good for their health, but it’s their livelihood. Since the Dandora site was declared full in 2001, there have been multiple efforts to clear the area—the latest in July last year, when a court ordered the county government to relocate it to a more environmentally friendly site where waste is properly separated and recycled within six months. Yet the dump is still in operation. Every day, another 850 tonnes of waste from the city’s 4.3 million residents enters its overflowing walls.

As the leaders of the newly formed Nairobi Recyclable Waste Association, Wanjira and Wangari are organising on behalf of roughly 300 members to promote and protect the rights of waste pickers. Both women are currently hustling to recruit new members. The larger the group, the more their legitimacy and bargaining power grows when calling on the government for safe and healthy working conditions, says Ochieng’.

“We don’t fear to take a stand because we represent the waste pickers,” says Wanjira. “If the government tries to kick us out, we can run to court and say we have rights, we work here, where do you want us to go?”

Back at Dandora dumpsite, Wanjira is flicking through a pile of crumpled papers ripped out from a textbook. On each side, a list of women’s names runs from top to bottom – her latest recruits to the waste picker association from a nearby dumpsite.

“I signed up 70 mamas the other day,” she says, smiling. She is nervous, though. She thinks the government will chase her away if she complains about the air pollution.

“But I am not the only one. Women on the dumpsite are suffering. They need our help… their stories need to be heard.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Fuller Project