How cement dust puts lives at risk silently

A local bricksman in Mwanza  handling the cement without any protective gear. Photo | Jonathan Musa

What you need to know:

Millions of people work daily in dusty environment, one such case is handling the cement dust that exposes the workers to occupational diseases.

Cement is one of the basic components when building a modern house. But the very same cement can be harmful to people’s health if not well handled, experts say.
 It is advised that those handling cement should use protective gears such as facial masks and gloves but it isn’t the case for 43- year-old Justine Rioba.
 He is a resident of Kishiri ward in Nyamagana district in Mwanza region who spoke to Your Health on how cement dust ruined his life.
 Rioba is a casual labourer at a local cement site and has been handling cement for three years and eight months now.
 “Besides carrying bags of cement, I sometimes have to measure it for customers who do not want to buy a full bag. I inhale cement dust every day and by the end of the day, it feels like the dust is logged in my throat. When I spit, the mucus is dark,” he says.
 Rioba began to note that things were not normal when his breathing mechanism started to change, especially at night when he gradually developed the habit of snoring. This change was not noticed by his wife who initially thought that her husband had some kind of flue.
 “My wife would at times buy for me some pain killers to calm the snoring noise at night but unfortunately, this seemed to trigger the habit more,” he recalls.
 Rioba says it reached a point where he would stop going to work as it was the only opportunity he had to make ends meet. He came from a low income status and had no choice but to continue going to the cement site.  
 “We get paid Sh6000 per day, and out of that money, food and transport would be spent from the same amount and therefore take back home Sh2000,”he discloses.
 Rioba said the more he stayed at home, the more his health condition deteriorated. So one fine day he was advised to go for medical checkup. He first visited a local dispensary from where he was referred to Bugando Medical Center for further medical attention.
 He was diagnosed with on-and-off acute bronchitis due to prolonged exposure to cement dust.
 Acute bronchitis inflames the lungs and causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Bronchitis is a warning sign that a condition in the lungs could later develop into cancer.
Rioba is now under medication.
 Health experts speak
 According to Dr Murthy Venkateswaran based at the Sanitas hospital, most workers handling cement digest the dust with the food they eat. He exemplifies by saying that for instance in hardware shops, it is very rare for the workers to close the shop and go for meal breaks.
So what usually happens is that food is brought into the shop and have no time to eat separately from the site but instead eat in the shop with the dust blowing, thus, risking their health.
“When cement dust is swallowed, it puts organs such as the stomach, kidney, and heart at risk. Prolonged exposure could also lead to stomach cancer,” he warns.
 He adds that constant exposure to cement can lead to dry skin and itching. Wet cement also burns the skin. The dust blocks skin pores.
 On his side, Mwanza’s Regional Medical Officer (RMO), Dr Leonard Subi, the cement dust causes lung function impairment and chronic obstructive lung diseases.
He informs Your Health that cement dust may enter into the systemic circulation and thereby reach all the organs of the body and affect different tissues including heart, liver, spleen, bone, muscles and hairs.
This ultimately affecting their micro-structure and physiological performance.
 “Cement dust irritates the skin, the mucous membrane of the eyes and the respiratory system.
Its deposition in the respiratory tract causes a basic reaction leading to increased Hydrogen Ion Concentration, pH values that irritates the exposed mucous membranes,” says Dr Subi.

They’ve become common cases
The doctor in-charge of Nyamagana district hospital, Agnes Mwita, says that the dust arising from cement can cause great damages on human health, which can as well lead to death.
 She says in a week, they can refer about five to ten patients to national hospitals with lungs and skin problems, a big percent of these people come from the background of brick makers and cement handlers, ‘fundi ujenzi’.
 “For example there are people under this field who are allergic to dust but they do not understand until it is too late. At our hospital, at least five to eight people are admitted daily with skin related complications and as well as lung problems,” she added.
 One of the health experts at Bugando Medical Centre who preferred anonymity, said that in a duration of two weeks they can admit about 20 patients with skin and lung complications, adding that many are local builders, brick makers and those from cement processing factories.
He [the source] said the incremental individual risk due to emissions of the cement dust is very low, not only with regards to health effects, but also in relation to toxicological and cancer risks produced by pollutants emitted by the cement forge.
 “Studies show that adverse respiratory health effects seen in the people exposed to cement dust, exemplified in increased frequency of respiratory symptoms and decreased ventilatory function, observed among cement workers could not be explained by age and smoking, thus are likely to be caused by exposure to cement dust,” he said.
Surveying around town

 In a random survey carried out by Your Health in Mwanza city, it was found  that a big number of informal constructors  and brick makers wear no protective gear to protect themselves from the cement dust.
 This was witnessed at Igoma Street, within the city of Mwanza, where a big space is occupied by cement related activities. Some are busy making bricks while others constructing culverts which are later connected on drainages for better infrastructure.
 During all these processes, the labourers do not put on the protective gear, perhaps because they cannot afford them or are ignorant of their consequences.
But if you observe closely, most of the faces of these builders seem old and tired despite their ages. When you go closer to them, you will note some marks on their skin especially hands and legs.
 On his side, Masasi Mlagaja, a local chairman leader in Nyamagana district, says that most youth have turned to construction activities as helpers due to the nature of life. He says some have ventured into brick making where cement is involved at a high rate.
 “It’s hard to convince a youth that without protective gear, cement can easily affect his or her health status. They justify by saying that it is the only place they can make a living  from despite of its tough manual work,” says Mr Mlagaja.
While it is compulsory under the labour law for factory workers to be accorded with protective gears such as thick gloves, safety caps and gum boots, those who work in hardware shops or on building sites are not accessing those gears.
So what should be done?
 Dr Thomas Nyakoba, a principal therapist at Bugando Medical Centre tells Your Health that corporate entities are mandated to disseminate information about the dangers of exposure to cement but small businesses are ignorant of these laws.
 Because the effects of inhaling and swallowing cement dust manifest over a period of time, it is not easy to peg an illness to a direct exposure incident.
 “The disease may come after the person has moved on and settled into another job,” he informs.
Construction materials in Tanzania include cement and cement products, bricks and building blocks, wood building columns, and others.
 Currently Tanzania’s cement production amounts to more than 2 million tons, compared to only 900,000 tons in 2009.