The people risking their lives on a deadly mountain of rubbish

It’s filthy, backbreaking and dangerous work. But for many Kenyans, scavenging through a mountain of deadly rubbish is the only way they can survive.

Every day, an estimated 2,000 people – mainly women and children – rummage through the Dandora rubbish dump on the outskirts of Nairobi, desperately hunting through dirty plastic, broken glass and medical waste for recyclables to sell – or even food to eat. A kilo of plastics will earn them just 11p. 

Many work with bare hands, risking their health as they do so. Waste pickers are vulnerable to cancers, respiratory issues, skin problems, fungal infections and miscarriages and infertility, among a host of other conditions.

Sites like this proliferate across the developing world. Globally, in countries such as India, Ghana and Vietnam, waste pickers, who are predominantly female, suffer from debilitating diseases as a result.

Griffins Ochieng, executive director for the Centre for Environmental Justice and Development, a Nairobi-based nonprofit focusing on the problem of plastic waste, says: ‘This is a global problem. Any dumpsite – anywhere there is plastic pollution – women will be impacted.’

Dandora is Nairobi’s main dumping ground. Every day, it receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents. Among it are rotting leftovers from nearby slaughterhouses (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A woman rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Described as a ‘perilous recycling economy’, the landfill puts food on the tables of around 3,000 families. But it also contaminates the air, land and water supply for miles around (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Steam rises around a man rummaging through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Acrid smoke rises up into the air, risking the health of both the waste pickers and the nearby community. Many of the women at the site end up with cancer after inhaling and ingesting heavy metals such as lead and mercury (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Breathing the noxious fumes generated by trash burning, especially electronic waste, is also highly dangerous. The soil and air are also polluted with mercury, which over time can damage the nervous system (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Women rummage through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warns the Dandora dump has posed a serious health threat to those working and living nearby as far back as 2007. Women at the site report infrequent periods and miscarriages (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

People rummaging through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Scores of pickers roam, hunting for plastic bottles, bags, bones and pig food. Sometimes they are cut by the glass, while needle-prick injuries leave them susceptible to blood-borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A woman rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Zebras once roamed this area, but now it’s a mountain of trash. In the 1970s, money from the World Bank enabled homes, schools and playgrounds to be be built in Dandora, but as it became overcrowded and jobs were lost, rubbish started being dumped on the site of an old quarry (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Women rummage through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Half of children who live and school near the dumpsite were found to have respiratory ailments and blood lead levels equal to or exceeding internationally accepted toxic levels, while three in ten had red blood cell abnormalities, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Women rummage through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

The Dandora dumpsite is an informal workplace to about 10,000 women, children and a few men who scavenge through the piles of rubbish daily, according to a Concern Worldwide report from 2012 (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Environmental Pollution emanating from Dandora leaves people suffering from malaria, chicken pox, septic wounds, congenital abnormalities and cardiovascular diseases, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

People rummage  through the mountain-like rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Dandora landfill, which covers approximately 30 acres, is the destination of about 850 tonnes of solid waste generated daily by Nairobi, which has a population of over 5 million (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

People rummage  through the mountain-like rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Rubbish from restaurants and bags full of leftover food can be found strewn around the site. Here, a crowd forms, hopeful that they will find something to eat or plastic bottles containing drinking water (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Trucks delivering trash to the dump emit a constant stream of filth that rains down on surrounding streets. The smoke from burning waste infiltrates local schools, leaving children nauseated by the stench of burning plastic (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Trucks delivering trash to the dump emit a constant stream of filth that rains down on surrounding streets. The smoke from burning waste infiltrates local schools, leaving children nauseated by the stench of burning plastic (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A convoy of trucks carrying rubbish replenishes the 30-acre dump daily. The site was deemed full in 1996, and despite an Environment and Land court ordering the closure of the dumpsite in July 2021, it continues to operate (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A convoy carrying rubbish replenishes the 30-acre dump daily. The site was deemed full in 1996, and despite an Environment and Land court ordering the closure of the dumpsite in July 2021, it continues to operate (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Air pollution can be reduced by proper waste management, but that doesn’t happen at Dandora, where health and environmental risks are caused by unrestricted dumping of domestic, industrial, hospital and agricultural waste (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Skin disorders, cancers, respiratory abnormalities and blood disorders are just some of the public health risks brought about by environmental pollution emanating from the dump site (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A woman carries valuable trash she's found at the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Toxicants find their way into the waste pickers’ systems through inhalation, ingestion and absorption. They are being left with a host of disorders including fungal infections, abdominal and intestinal problems, kidney and renal failure and impairment of neurological development (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Men rummage through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Many of the waste pickers come from nearby slums. One of the nearest, Korogocho, is home to an estimated 200,000 people crowded into a 1.5 square km area. It is known for high rates of poverty, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and widespread HIV and AIDS (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man rummages through the rubbish dump in Dandora, which receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents every day

Children working on the dump were tested as part of a United Nations Environment Programme study. Half of them had toxic levels of lead in their blood, leading to headaches, chest pains and muscular weakness. Many of them were also suffering from asthma, conjunctivitis and dermatitis (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Two men hold a stick that helps weigh the rubbish. A kilo of plastic is worth 11p.

Recycling is weighed, ready for sale. It’s horrendous work. Waste-pickers scavenge for hours under the Kenyan sun, with no running water nearby. Those that work on the landfill feel they have no other option. (Picture: Gerald Anderson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)



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