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Capacity Building in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Ghana

BACKGROUND TO THE PROJECT

Safety at work and the regular monitoring of workplace pollution still have some way to go in Ghana. This is especially true in the informal sector, where many poor people make a living from recovering reusable materials from waste. A particularly crucial factor in this is their handling of a growing mountain of e-waste, which contains toxic substances like mercury and lead alongside its valuable components. The Old Fadama dumping ground in Accra – known all over the world under the name Agbogbloshie – has become synonymous with how not to handle e-waste properly.

However, it is much more than that: it is a trading centre for anything from the recovery of end-of-life vehicles to the sale of spare parts and the creation of upcycled products. But safety at work is conspicuous by its absence. Anything that cannot be sold is incinerated there and then, poisoning the soil, the groundwater, the rivers and the sea. Heavy metals and other pollutants that are released enter the food chain through cattle, goats and chickens that run freely across the site.

What is more, very limited scientific capacity and expertise in environmental and occupational medicine means that there is little reliable or representative biomonitoring data available in Ghana, particularly from the informal recycling sector. This is making it hard to tackle the health risks and environmental hazards from an objective perspective.

PROJECT OBJECTIVE

The project is geared towards strengthening scientific capacity and expertise in environmental and occupational medicine in Ghana so that in-depth analyses of health risks, particularly in the informal recycling sector, can be conducted and alternative strategies can be recommended.

This will help to enable the country to leverage the potential offered by labour-intensive processes in the circular economy in an environmentally and socially responsible way in the medium term, thus helping to fight poverty.

PROJECT ACTIVITIES

The project is centred around a professional partnership between the RWTH University Hospital Aachen and the University of Ghana in the field of occupational and environmental medicine, under which the project activities were implemented jointly.

Joint development of the cooperation concept
The Department of Biological, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (BEOHS) at the University of Ghana School of Medicine and the Institute for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine at the RWTH University Hospital Aachen had already worked together on a previous joint research proposal. Building on this, a joint cooperation concept was first developed over several meetings held in Accra and Aachen.

Joint field research as part of an academic degree
One key element of the professional cooperation was joint research activities by doctoral and other students at the two universities, most notably on the Old Fadama dumping ground. These activities studied the damage to health caused by activities in the informal recycling sector, and amongst control groups who were not directly exposed. The findings from this field research were used for various doctoral theses and bachelor’s and master’s dissertations, which were supervised by lecturers at both universities.

Setting up a heavy-metal analysis laboratory at BEOHS
If waste electrical and electronic equipment is not recovered properly, it releases heavy metals that are particularly harmful to health. Being able to identify and measure traces of these metals in blood and urine samples is a key prerequisite for systematic biomonitoring, which is why a laboratory for analysing heavy metals was set up at BEOHS.

Training lab technicians 
Lab technicians from Accra were trained at RWTH Aachen University’s Institute for Occupational and Social Medicine to ensure that the heavy-metal analysis laboratory could be run properly.

Sharing professional expertise among teachers at both partner universities
The regular steering committee meetings were used as an opportunity for university lecturers to share professional expertise and explore the possibility of more in-depth research projects.

Producing training materials on safety at work
To prevent occupational accidents on the dumping ground, the research teams documented typical workflows on the site and analysed them in terms of the risk of such accidents occurring. This was used as a basis for developing training materials to ensure safety at work on the dumping ground as part of the project. These were then shared with multipliers.

Setting up a hospital on the Old Fadama dumping ground
An existing building on the edge of the Old Fadama dumping ground was completely renovated, converted into a combined hospital and training centre and kitted out accordingly in partnership with the BMZ-financed Environmentally Sound Disposal and Recycling of E-waste in Ghana project. The hospital is now run by the state-owned Ghana Health Service. It enables local residents and workers to receive first aid if they are ill or suffer an accident. It also organises preventive measures to ensure safety at work.

Presenting research findings 
The partnership’s research findings on existing health risks are particularly important in terms of the protective measures to be taken to help those directly affected on the dumping ground and in the surrounding area. Some of the results were thus presented at the West African Clean Energy & Environment Exhibition and conference in 2018. A concluding presentation was also given in the Ministry of Environment with the involvement of the two university partners.

Photo gallery

Brief project description

Title: Partnership for Capacity Building in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Ghana
Term: March 2016 – December 2018
Sector: Environment and health

Supported by:
State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

Partners and actors

  • Institute for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine at the RWTH University Hospital Aachen
  • Department of Biological, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (BEOHS) at the University of Ghana School of Medicine
  • National Youth Authority
  • Ghana Health Service
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