More than just WASH


By Magdalene Matthews

First of all, let me start by wishing Mr. Kenneth Y. Best a belated Happy 75th Birthday, as he continues to provide strategic leadership to Liberian Observer Corporation.


To some of you who have followed my articles in the Daily Observer’s Environmental Column over the past few months, you may have noticed that they all seem to focus on the need for increased interventions in the environmental/public health sector. While the French argue that “la repetition est pedagogique” meaning “repetition of information is pedagogical,” as informative advocacy pieces, my articles also tend to state the case for increased focus on the environment-public health interphase.


Just think about it. Whether at work, home or play, from the water we drink, to our places of work, the schools our children attend and the homes we live in, each of us—male or female, rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate, employed or unemployed—is exposed to factors within the environment on a daily basis. Many of these environmental agents play a crucial role in sustaining or jeopardizing public health, individually and collectively, beginning with the most vulnerable in society—our young children, pregnant women and the elderly.


Each month, as I compose these articles, my position is simple:

Moving forward, what Liberia needs most to lessen the national burden of disease is not necessarily rocket science, but a comprehensive, more holistic approach to national environmental and occupational health interventions.

For many years, environmental health interventions in Liberia have been limited to activities addressing unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). But environmental health goes beyond just WASH. It is a multi-faceted sector which includes the health effects of the wood and charcoal each of us use in our homes every day. It includes basic personal and domestic hygiene, like brushing our teeth daily and getting rid of potential breeding sites for mosquitoes which tend to feast on the blood of our vulnerable youngsters. It includes community participation like not defecating near the hand-pump you and your neighbors use to fetch your drinking water from. It includes teaching your children to wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating, as was so carefully demonstrated by WASH sector actors during the just ended Global Hand-washing Day celebrations on October 15th. But it also includes worker health and safety, the usually forgotten field of OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH.  

In recent years, the revitalization of the national economy has come with increased activity in the extractive industry. But with mining activity, for example—both large-scale and artisanal— comes increased exposure to many naturally occurring toxic metals like lead and mercury. From a public health standpoint, guess who’s most vulnerable? That’s right. The MINERS. Beyond the general population, the miners are in closer proximity to everything that takes place on site.

In the average printing press in Monrovia, on a daily basis, with each print-out of a newspaper, workers are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. Some of which have long-term health effects if not properly handled, especially without the proper personal protective equipment. This necessitates a closer and yet more critical look at worker health and safety in all sectors of the emerging Liberian society vis-à-vis their individual and collective daily exposures.

How protected are they in such high risk environments? How informed are they of the health risks associated with such long-term, up-close exposure?

In the words of William Shakespeare, “Strong reasons make strong actions.” If Liberia is to meet key deliverables of MDG 3 (Reduce Child Mortality) and MDG 7 (Ensure Environmental Sustainability) and emerge more strategically positioned as a nation to attain middle income status by 2030, the health of the population, the health of our currently limited human resource base, provides strong enough reasons for strong actions. In essence, more concerted efforts MUST be made to further integrate occupational and environmental health interventions within national policies across sectors.  This is not merely the responsibility of just the policy makers, but that of every Liberian, in every sector of society.

Author’s affiliation: M. Sc., Environmental Health-Harvard School of Public Health, Cyprus International Institute

B. Sc. Zoology, emphasis Public Health-University of Ghana-Legon, 2012 Harvard Cyprus Program Fellow




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