Authors : Sylvia Becerra, Marie Belland, Alain Bonnassieux & Catherine Liousse
Affiliated organization : Health Risk & Society
Type of publication : Academic paper
Date of publication : 2020
Ambient air pollution is currently a modern environmental health hazard in urban Africa and beyond. Such pollution is estimated to cause more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide each year through cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses and cancers, according to the World Health Organisation.
In recent literature, ‘living with’ risk is presented as the major challenge facing contemporary societies, which have to find their own resilience pathways in an environment ‘polluted forever’. In other words, it is not so much about mastering pollution than organising ways of living on permanently polluted territories coupled with a discourse on individual responsibility in risk management: because it is not possible to avoid contaminants, each person is urged to reduce his or her own exposure. Risk culture is one of the recommended tools: it is a set of cognitions of risks (including perception, awareness, understanding and memory), behaviours and practices for preventing risks or avoiding dangers
We argue that the understanding of risks, and therefore the ways in which risk is dealt with and experienced in everyday life, should be considered from a sociocultural perspective, through both culture and personal experience
Understanding Abidjan and its development
During the economic crisis and due to the political and military conflicts (from 1999 to 2010) poverty levels increased, the sanitary conditions worsened, and the tensions between Ivorians and immigrants grew. At the same time, the city area expanded from 580 km² in 1990 to 2,199 km² in 2010, which has resulted in a greater disconnection between housing and employment areas. Despite the stabilisation of state institutions and the economic recovery since Alassane Ouattara’s election in 2010 (and re-election), the informal sector continues to account for 75 percent of jobs according to a study conducted by the Observatoire de l’Emploi in 2008. Amongst these, the fish smoking (home fires) and waste recovery activities studied here, belong largely to the domain of subsistence micro-activities.
In this context, urban transport has evolved to become much more informal and pollutant. Home and dump fires are further quickly increasing air pollution sources.
How do representations and social practices contribute to air pollution? How do exposed persons face this risk and protect themselves against it?
The Lubafrique smokers : vulnerability was deliberately transferred to lower social status home helps[Lubafrique, located in the working-class commune of Yopougon, served as an example of a market run by and for women. Approximately thirty women fish and meat smokers worked on a smoking site on the edge of the market]
The analysis of smokers’ interview showed a high awareness and understanding of the risk posed by air pollution, which was linked to the strong sensory experience of inhaling smoke when working close to smoking kilns in a confined space.
Perceptions of smoke were rather homogenous among smokers: ‘smoke is dirty’ and ‘smoke is hot’. The smokers also suspected that smoke had an impact on their eyes, bodies, skin texture and colour, but also for some, on their menstrual cycle. The smoking site was also essentially a female space where the older mums passed on these representations to the younger women. Mums promoted self-medication with a combination of medicines, tonics, specific ailments and beverages to the younger workers.
We interpreted our data as showing that women who were initially the most vulnerable socially are also those who were the most exposed to pollution, as they were the least able to retreat from it. This social vulnerability appeared to be due to internal power relationships within the group
From an empirical perspective, protection against smoke was not compatible with a smoking job, since the smokers considered it inconvenient to wear protective equipment when doing the smoking; for instance, a mask was too hot, it restricted vision and made it hard to breathe; wearing equipment was also perceived as being inefficient. Furthermore, there were no plans to change work practices by using alternative fuels or improved smoking kilns as these were thought to alter the taste of the produce or to reduce income.
Moving away from the smoking site was the only option that was considered feasible to reduce their health vulnerability, either by seeking work elsewhere, by setting up their own trading business (employed helpers and home helps), or by employing someone else to do the smoking job in front of the oven while they sold the smoked produce in a more sheltered position away from the smoking area (mums). We interpreted our data as showing that women who were initially the most vulnerable socially are also those who were the most exposed to pollution, as they were the least able to retreat from it. This social vulnerability appeared to be due to internal power relationships within the group.
The Abidjanese taxi drivers: a ‘mechanistic’ approach to pollution forged by individual practices
When carrying out their job, the Abidjanese taxi drivers in our study faced multiple economic, physical, social and operational risks, the impacts of which were exacerbated by the lack of a social security system and non-existent employment contracts. Faced with risks perceived as major, such as accidents or assaults, air pollution was seen as a secondary problem or even simply as an ‘ordinary inconvenience’ to be tolerated or resisted rather than prevented.
On the issue of pollution representations in the industry, taxi drivers possessed detailed knowledge of the consequences for air quality of vehicle defects and maintenance, such as air filter cleaning, engine type and fuel quality. Their representations of protective measures against pollution effects were thus seen through this mechanical lens: the only approach that they considered feasible to protect themselves against air pollution was to have an air-conditioned vehicle so that they could shut themselves inside the car to avoid direct exposure to exhaust fumes.
Finally, occupational status, which we defined by ownership of the work tool, was seen as a determining factor for understandings of risk
When thinking about the future, exposure to air pollution was also a minor variable. In most cases, drivers referred to their desires to move up the industry hierarchy and become owners, while continuing to drive – and to be exposed to pollution – to maximise revenue.
Finally, occupational status, which we defined by ownership of the work tool, was seen as a determining factor for understandings of risk. We explain this ‘higher’ risk culture in terms of possibilities to participate in collective organisations, extensive experience in the job and a higher income – meaning for this group that they were not restricted by their financial means in the present, and they could provide for their family in the future.
The Akouédo dump site workers: air pollution was hidden by economic issues
Our data collected among waste pickers and multiple-job workers indicated that they considered their main challenge as reversing their unfortunate social and economic insecurity by changing the risks they were experiencing into opportunities. The interview data lead us to argue that the environmental health risks were recast as opportunities, as other work on environments associated with a pollution risk has shown.
An important finding in this sense was that references to the dump as being dangerous were displaced in workers’ accounts by references to the dump as a ‘lifesaving’, a place of opportunities, and as providing work, income and even luck: ‘We can’t say it’s not risky, but if you’re earning a living there, you can’t say it makes you ill. This work saves me’
Practices for living better with pollution
The comparison between groups shows that there were two different types of practices on the three sites with regard to ‘living better with’ air pollution. On the one hand, there were practices to reduce exposure: wearing protection (mainly masks) – which remained rare on the three sites, diversifying activities (dump site), adapting working hours (and hence the length of exposure for smokers and taxi drivers), or maintaining vehicle (taxi drivers).
On the other hand, some practices were used to resist the health effects of pollution: adopting lifestyle habits, adapting diet and personal hygiene and exercising to enable the body to ‘resist’ pollution. The consumption of condensed milk, particularly of the brand name ‘Bonnet Rouge’, was thought both to make the body stronger and to ‘cleanse’ it by removing pollutants, smoke and dust.
Strategies to transfer vulnerability to pollution between individuals in different status categories
Strategies to transfer vulnerabilities between workers in different social status categories were observed. Taxi drivers employed an assistant or a casual driver; the mums recruited a smoking helper; workers who have managed to save up a small amount of capital on the dump delegated the most difficult tasks to the newcomers, such as waste cleaning, carrying and processing.
Another strategy was to leave their job. This ‘exit’ strategy, however, relied on saving enough money to start over in another business less exposed to pollution or to train in a different occupation.
Strategies to transfer vulnerabilities between workers in different social status categories were observed. Taxi drivers employed an assistant or a casual driver; the mums recruited a smoking helper; workers who have managed to save up a small amount of capital on the dump delegated the most difficult tasks to the newcomers, such as waste cleaning, carrying and processing
Finally, there was a more rarely implemented strategy, to invest in the very long term for future generations, which was mainly encountered in women and younger workers (male or female) at the smoking and dump sites. Nonetheless, access to education, and ultimately to a job protected from air pollution, was not guaranteed for the second generation of waste pickers on the Akouédo dump.
Firstly, empirical data about the social dimension of risk related to air pollution show that the working conditions and occupational practices in each group shaped specific representations of air pollution. Moreover, air pollution risk is managed with short- term strategies because it is often overshadowed by other, more urgent threats to livelihood.
On one hand, our findings suggest that risk culture is the combination of a tangible experience of pollution (its reality), technical mediations staging that experience (objects and equipment), and existing social relationships (dominance relationships).
On the other hand, it demonstrates that ‘colonising the future’, as a long-term risk management perspective, requires strategies to reduce overall vulnerability, and differs according to occupational status. For the most powerful in each occupational area, the strategy is to transfer the risk to the workers at the bottom of the industry hierarchy in the short term, thus increasing their individual ‘resilience’, and to make plans for the long term in the same industry. For the most vulnerable, the strategy is to ‘hope’ to move up the industry hierarchy, where there is a greater choice in terms of exposure levels, or to save up for the long term in order to leave the hazardous job permanently
Finally, our findings about the differential exposure to air pollution could have implications for the operational management of environmental health disparities from a public health perspective.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.