Hot weather can cause health problems, people working in the sun are most at risk 

A waste picker at work in Thembisa
Photo by Marcia Zali

It is almost eight o’clock  on a warm but chilly November Friday morning, Joyce Mathe from Thembisa in Ekurhuleni east of Johannesburg is hard at work collecting waste outside of people’s yards for her recycling business. The cool weather is a welcome relief after the recent wave of extremely hot and dry weather conditions which saw temperatures rise up to 33 degrees Celsius in Johannesburg. 

The 64-years-old mother of four is self-employed. For over a decade, she’s been collecting recyclable waste from rubbish bins and taking it to the depot just a few kilometres outside of Thembisa. Through her business, she has been able to provide for herself and her youngest child who is now in Grade 12.

She currently does not receive the old age pension after allegedly being told by an official at her local South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) branch that she must be 65 years to qualify. Her 65th birthday is in December. Mathe is looking forward to getting some financial relief, and to supplement her current income of between R800 and R1200 per month which she uses to pay rent and buy groceries. Mathe is renting a shack and declined her landlord’s offer to have electricity installed because she could not afford it.

“I no longer make as much as I used to before Covid-19, they reduced the rate per kilogram and this means I get less for the same load I have been collecting over the years. I’m only doing this work because my son relies on me,” she says.

Mathe hard at work. (by Marcia Zali)

During warm seasons, her days start at four in the morning. She makes sure that she wears a long-sleeved top underneath her dress as well as a hat to protect herself from the sun. She also wears protective gloves for when she sifts through rubbish bins looking for plastic bottles and boxes. Once dressed, she pushes her trolley that has been fitted with a huge white bag into the streets.

She tells Health-e News that although the job exposes her to extremely high temperatures, she’s found ways to minimise the impact. Her outfit, working hours as well as staying hydrated play a crucial role in her ability to do her job. Not having any chronic condition like hypertension and diabetes is also an advantage, she says smiling.

“You know how hot it can be during summer, so I make sure that I finish work before the sun gets too hot. Last week was very difficult but I made sure that I had enough drinking water,” explains Mathe while packing the boxes she collected onto her trolley. 

An extremely hot and dry season

Seasonal forecasters predicted earlier in the year that southern Africa would be having a drier than usual summer as a result of an El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Typically lasting between 9 to 18 months, El Nino events happen when cold water that is normally pushed to replace warm water from the coast of South America to the west fails to rise, resulting in unusual weather patterns.

Researcher and director at Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, Dr Katharine Vincent explains that the southern Africa region has seen El Nino events in the past. But climate change is more likely to change their frequency and intensity because of a warmer atmosphere and sea surface.

The atmospheric phenomenon is expected to peak in November. 

“El Nino brings drier conditions than normal in the summer season; all sectors need to prepare for possible limitations to water availability. Of course, this is particularly relevant to agriculture, where rain-fed farming is reliant on how much rain falls,” says Vincent.

“But El Nino also has implications for other sectors – for example water and sanitation. Water supply managers need to be aware that rainfall may be lower, and thus domestic and industrial supply will have to be supplemented through water that has been stored in dams and reservoirs,” she adds.

El Nino impact on health

Researchers at the University of Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health Institute (Wits RHI) Climate and Health Directorate have been researching the impact of heat, drought and floods on health. 

According to the directorate, there is increasing data which shows that heat has become an environmental threat to health, particularly in children, the elderly, pregnant women and occupational groups like community health workers, construction workers and people like Mathe, whose work exposes them to the elements.

“The short-term effects of heat are numerous, with heat exhaustion and heat stroke being two conditions where the body is simply unable to adequately cool itself. This can lead to an increased body temperature with multiple negative consequences,” explains Dr Gloria Maimela, head of the Climate and Health Directorate at Wits RHI.  

Mathe does her best to protect herself from the sun. (by Marcia Zali)

Exposure to extreme heat further increased the risks of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure. People with chronic conditions like kidney or heart disease were also at risk because heat affects their organ systems.

Pregnant women were also found to have a 16% risk of having a pre-term birth and an increased risk of having a stillbirth because of heat waves.

“Beyond these direct and short-term consequences, we will likely see even more long-term and indirect consequences. These will likely include a change in infectious disease patterns, with increasing likelihood of malaria outbreaks, tick-bite fever, and other diseases carried by animals sensitive to changes in the climate. It will also increase the risk of infectious diarrhoea – one of the deadliest diseases for children under five,” she adds.

Awareness and adaptation

There is currently no data on hospital admissions that can be directly linked to heat. But the directorate suggests that awareness on extreme heat events is required to minimise the impact on people’s health.

Some of these measures include taking a break during the hottest time of the day for manual labourers, ensuring that workers are hydrated by providing a water tank or installing taps in communal spaces like taxi ranks.

Maimela adds that, “these interventions can be simple and effective, and many have significant benefits in other spheres. For example, providing clean cool water, will not only reduce the acute direct effects of heat, but will also reduce the burden of diarrhoea, which will lessen the burden on hospitals, improving the standard of care.” – Health-e News


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