Public health concern

Is Port-au-Prince’s Environment Making Us Sick?

The original version of this article is published on Woy Magazine.

A few years ago, I picked the front seat of a tap-tap heading to Pétion-ville. As usual with these common public transportation vehicles, the old car hardly moved up the hill to my destination. A couple of minutes later, a truck with the sign “O-Lavi”, selling clean water across the city, drove past.  A thick line of dark smoke coming from its muffler spread in the air and through the tap-tap which had no windows. The passengers started coughing, including the driver who had to park the car for a while because the dark smoke prevented him from seeing the road ahead.

Since then, I’ve experienced such events more and more frequently, making me wonder if Port-au-Prince’s environment is becoming a source of diseases. In fact, 12.6 million deaths linked to the environment occur annually in the world.  Many of the causes are partly due to environmental hazards identified by the World Health Organization: air pollution, community noise and poor sanitation. In Port-au-Prince, exposure to such hazards is almost unescapable. So I decided to look into how environmental factors are potentially affecting the residents of Port-au-Prince.

Air pollution

Toxic gas emissions often pollute places where most people live, since they also attend their occupations there. These emissions usually come from vehicles engines or burnt domestic wastes. For example, when vendors setup their businesses along the streets, trucks or motorcycles regularly pass or stop nearby. When the engine is started, merchants and passersby often inhale expelled gaseous components. People who travel via public transportation also inhale these while  stuck in traffic, because tap-taps and other vehicles used for Haitian public transportation are usually semi-open.

According to a study published in 2016, children from lower socio-economic households have a higher risk of specific respiratory health problems due to traffic volume and air pollution exposure. Further research found that air pollution contributes to the development of asthma throughout childhood and adolescence. Even when no specific link between air pollution and respiratory infections has been established in Haiti as of this writing, the latter is one of the most common causes of death among children. Despite these heavy potential consequences, air pollution is never a lone factor.

Community noise

Often associated with heavy traffic, community noise increases with the fast urbanization of Port-au-Prince. Business development attracts more people to the city every year and results in more and more noisy traffic jams.  In many neighborhoods, street vendors using megaphones to attract clients, churches with loud sound system, or a motorcade with roaring sirens are common occurences. In fact, the typical street scene in Port-au-Prince produces a cacophony. But the absence of a proper legislation shows the little importance attached to community noise.

In such environment, the level of stress among most people can quickly rise; especially among the poorest who tend to live in cluttered neighbourhoods. A study conducted in Ghana in 2015 revealed that occupational noise might increase the level of a stress hormone and the heart rate consequently. In my opinion, similar results can be found in Port-au-Prince. Overtime, this lifestyle might lead to a heavy burden of cardio-vascular diseases.

Poor environmental sanitation

Besides air pollution and community noise, poor sanitation is another environmental factor impeding the health of the population in Port-au-Prince. The remoteness of certain neighborhoods usually leaves little access to the city’s trash collectors. The high price of private services is often a barrier for many. So, people frequently fill the nearest gully and even the main roads with domestic wastes. When they don’t burn it, the trash remains in the communities for days. So as one goes through the streets, it is not uncommon to notice plastic bottles, used tires, or a dead animal among the wastes. Sometimes, even human feces stain the sidewalks, possibly a consequence of 6.3% of households in the metropolitan area having no toilets. The rain might easily carry away the wastes, polluting clean water sources.

The lack of a proper waste management system has made Port-au-Prince more vulnerable to the rapid spread of the cholera epidemic since 2010. It also opens doors to other diarrheal diseases- less known- affecting most children and malaria which is endemic in Haiti. Furthermore, a Zika epidemic to which poor sanitation is a vehicle is currently unfolding in Haiti, affecting thousands of people so far. Most of the people affected live in Port-au-Prince.

If we are willing to leave a healthier Haiti to the future generations, it starts with the courage to assess where we are and come together to change it for the better.

On my way back from Pétion-ville that day, the bus I rode in trudged on despite the apparent malfunctions of the engine. Along the road, people went about their daily activities with no worry about any threat. Usually, the three factors described in this article here combine to provoke the worst. But life goes on in Port-au-Prince inside the smog filled air and ambient noise, merchants lay their foods on the bare ground, among garbage and dust. This is the daily life of most of the population amidst a lack of medical services. Actually, considering the potential impacts of air pollution, community noise and poor sanitation, the environment of Port-au-Prince suggests that the population’s health is unlikely to improve in the next few years. In hopes to reverse this trend, the public health and prevention advocates must join hands with environmental activists to fight these threats. If we are willing to leave a healthier Haiti to the future generations, it starts with the courage to assess where we are and come together to change it for the better.

Paradigm shift