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Pollution, pesticides horror stories must be shouted from rooftops


By Kodi Barth

My brother bought a car in Mombasa and drove it to Nairobi. It took him three days to drive the 500km. Why three days? Because in Voi something popped and he lost the engine, two days and Sh150,000. At the Machakos turnoff he lost the gearbox, one day and Sh50,000.

He got to Nairobi, and I took the car out for a spin. It had a loud roar – and this car was not a Safari Rally model. Acceleration was sputtering. Turns out somebody had stolen a gadget called the catalytic converter from the exhaust system.

My brother had bought a lemon.

But the biggest moving problem on the road was the missing catalytic converter. My brother was killing people on the road. And he didn’t even know it.

Did you know that a car whose catalytic converter is removed emits particulate matter that, if breathed, will lodge into lungs and potentially cause fatal respiratory complications?

This invisible matter is responsible for over 70 per cent of health complications from air pollution, according to a recent story in The Standard.

Titled, “Black Gold: How sale of catalytic converters puts lives in danger”, the story by Dominic Kirui said that it is against the law in Kenya to remove the catalytic converter. It can be used to make bombs. A “kilo” sells for Sh35,000 to Sh40,000, the story said.

Then, it leaves the mutilated car on the road to kill all of us with toxic emissions.

Before the ink dried on this horror story, another one hit the news.

Turns out that a staggering 76 per cent of pesticides used by farmers in Kenya are banned in Europe. Sample the headlines:

  • Toxic pesticides banned in Europe being peddled to Global South farmers” – The East African, September 5, 2023

  • Revealed: Kenya spends Sh11b to import toxic pesticides annually” – The Standard, September 16, 2023

  • Farmers concern over double standards by EU on Kenyan products” – The Nairobian, September 17, 2023

These stories were triggered following an alarming study by The Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), a programme advocating for the right to food in Kenya. The study, published September 13, said that not only do Kenyan farms continue to use such a high percentage of pesticides already banned in Europe, up to 40 hazardous active ingredients are prevalent in the country.

Let’s see. If something is harmful to people living in Europe, it should be harmful to humans in Kenya, too, right? Just asking.

Isitoshe, it should be common sense that any pesticide, safe or unsafe, that is sprayed onto fruits and vegetables should be allowed some time to wear off before it’s safe to eat the produce. The wait period, called harvest interval, must be observed, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

How long should we wait to eat sprayed fruits and vegetables?

An unverified post on says that some pesticides can be sprayed, let dry, and then it’s safe to pick your produce on the same day. But that with other pesticides, you should wait perhaps three or seven days before harvesting.

Harvest intervals should be printed on the pesticide labels, says WHO.

By a show of hands, how many believe all pesticides used in Kenya have that label? How many farmers read it? If today a farmer sprayed a pesticide whose harvest interval is three days, then got an order tomorrow morning, how many believe the farmer will turn down that order because his tomatoes or sukuma wiki are still toxic?

Who is protecting families from eating those tomatoes, those sukuma wiki?

Nestled between the twin bad news was another story on pollution. “The air we breathe in Nairobi is killing us, study reveals”, said a September 3 headline in the Nation.

The story by Leon Lidigu said that a study in eight Nairobi “estates” showed that air pollution in the city was dangerously higher than WHO’s recommended daily limit. As a result, at least 10 per cent of Nairobi children have abnormal chests – the main reason for increased child hospitalisations and deaths in six city hospitals, the story said.

Who is protecting Kenyans from these invisible terrors?

We have no shortage of government regulators. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is responsible for ensuring Kenyans breathe clean air. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS) slaps its labels on products, domestic or imported, to certify their safety. The country has eight health regulatory agencies, from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) to the Radiation Protection Board (RPB) and other six in between.

But do these agencies have teeth? Or, as they say, is everyone for himself and God for us all?

So, banned pesticides are ending up on our dining tables. The air in Nairobi is hospitalising our children. And mechanics stealing catalytic converters are killing all of us. What could go wrong?

Give politics a break. These are stories that media must shout from the rooftops.

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