Mosquitoes, Litter and Disease – American Samoa has a litter problem that’s breeding and spreading disease

In October of this year the 7th annual Bilateral Health Summit of the Samoa’s. This health summit is held between the Samoa nations of Western Samoa and American Samoa were held in Utulei, American Samoa for 2016. The event covered a variety of topics over the three days of gathering. Some of the focuses being mental health, mosquito spread diseases, alcohol and woman abuse.  As an outsider growing up in the United States, is surprised at the apparent aloofness regarding addictions and abuse.

Image result for mosquito in american samoaThe event itself, while open to the public, did not have a large community participation of non medical personnel. Overall between the two delegations there appeared to be about one hundred people participating consistently over the week. Participating agencies were primarily government bodies and the attitude in general seemed to lack value toward NGO’s.  Catering provided dozens of waste plastics from water bottles, Styrofoam packaging, plastic containers and non compostable sandwich bags.

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The consumption of single use plastics is an epidemic as seen in this photo at a local church gathering.

For me, day two provided some of the most interesting material. The afternoon’s discussions surrounded Dengue, Zikia and other mosquito spread diseases. I leaned a wide spectrum about these diseases. The most important being that most diseases are not from the mosquitoes but spread diseases by going from human to human drawing blood. Over the last decade, both countries have endeavored to study and understand the impacts and causes of these diseases. This unfortunately is where the similarities seem to end.

What presents a stark difference is the responses to this issue by county. Overall the response to managing mosquito spread diseases is to manage the mosquitoes. To manage this problem in Western Samoa, agencies have taken drastic steps in several key areas. The biggest of these is trash management. Steps that were taken were to clean up the island by cleaning all trash throughout all villages. This included tire cleanup, fines for litterbugs and instituting a recycling program. Additionally the press has stayed involved, pressing the importance of litter control in this article. One of the ways villages were motivated to clean up their pollution was to open up tourism in villages by having visitors stay with families throughout the island, invoking island pride by having beautiful surroundings for their guests. Through instituting a recycling program, waste management practices became standardized and the understanding of individual responsibility became widespread.  Additional measures included the spraying of airplanes at the airport to reduce the chances of transferring mosquitoes from island to island, thus spreading more diseases to various islands.

Conversely, while American Samoan Heath Department officials recognize the importance of these programs but gathering inter-agency support appears to be an insurmountable task. Less than 16 hours after these presentations this example was seen in the attitude of American Samoa’s EPA director, Mr. Ameko Pato, who stated that recycling want a priority of the agency’s agenda. This is in direct contrast to both the stated needs of the Health Department and a planning meeting held with Region 9 EPA Director in July 2015.  Litter and trash reduction are important in some areas of the islands government agencies.  Radio advertizing can often be heard, ” I ain’t your momma; pick it up!”.  Additionally there are efforts by the American Samoa EPA  who are focused on a strictly voluntary program called “Keep American Samoa Beautiful” or KASB for short.  While this program was started in 2013, efforts to expand this program and enhance it’s efficiency are definitely needed.  Various attempts to join members of the community to clean up litter in American Samoa will leave one wanting…

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A Snail crawls over a littered Gatorade bottle – an example of mosquito breeding grounds in the jungle.  This plastic bottle could take more than 300 years to decompose.

 

 

Efforts to work with the Corral Reef Advisory Group, another community entity focused on cleaning beaches and preventing pollution from getting into the ocean – have provided little to no results, with email responses taking months at a time to be responded to; turning efforts from at least two faith based efforts away from this valuable community effort over the last 6 months of 2016.  Additional efforts, like charging fines for littering constantly face an uphill battle.  In 2016 legislature finally came out with plans to charge fines for littering – yes in 2016!!!! The responsibility falls among a variety of groups including EPA and other government officials as well as local village aumaga ( a group of men with no title who serve the village chief), but largely is NOT A POLICE RESPONSIBILITY.

Why is it important to work together to clean up trash, especially litter on an island?  The answers are quite simple.  First of all, in tropical environments there is only one season.  It’s nice out.  That nice can mean rain and sunshine or just sunshine all day long, with spritzes of rain.  Rain brings water, water – STANDING WATER – provides the breeding ground for mosquitoes.

“Trash. All manner of trash, with rain water collecting in it, can be home to mosquitoes. This can be the case in many places you didn’t think of, such as a pile of lumber scraps, old mop buckets, hub caps, and tires. Patrol your property after every period of rain and dump out anything that collects water – and you might want to keep anything that collects water overturned or in the garage so that it doesn’t become a problem in the first place.” – from the website SkeeterBite

Mosquitoes suck.  Currently there are 12 different species of mosquitoes in American Samoa according to this press relase by the American Samoa Community College. Mosquito spread diseases are on the rise in American Samoa and according to the speakers at the conference, the majority of those infected are never tested due to a lack of capacity to test for the disease.  These diseases include Zikia, Dengue, filariasis and chikungunya.  With growing levels of pollution, there are growing levels of mosquitoes.  The only way to solve this growing problem is to clean up the trash and prevent it from accumulating around your home.   The most important space, to protect your home – is to ensure the removal of trash from about 300 feet in any direction, and to lead by example.

 

 

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Pollution in American Samoa, a look at the Nu’uuli Mangroves

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on a planning meeting between the Environmental Protection Agency of American Samoa, Department of Marine Wildlife and the American Samoa Power Authority.  This meeting was to discuss the implementation and roll-out of a new mitigation program that would include data collection to help assist in evaluating the types and sources of pollution on the coastlines of American Samoa.  Within 3 weeks, I found this article written in the local newspaper, the American Samoa News about a group of roughly 25 individuals who collected 160 bags of waste during a cleanup of the Pala Lagoon on the opposite side of the Nu’uuli Mangroves.

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A picturesque scene from the Nu’uuli mangroves.  Unfortunately, everything isn’t a beautiful as it seems.

With this in mind, I accepted an invite to take a short tour of a section of the Mangroves, a section that stretches out into the Lagoon and is one of the areas proposed to be mitigated by the EPA.  What we found was heartbreaking.

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A look inland shows large swaths of pollution across the mangroves and inland island.

As I toured the mangroves, I had a conversation with Dennis Ahoia, a local business owner and family member tied to one of the pieces of land designated as part of the Nu’uuli Mangroves.   This part of the island is uninhabited, yet the area is full of rubbish, and most of it is fairly new. After a short boat ride across the bay, Dennis lead me through the mangroves, most of which are completely undeveloped.  He showed me sections where decades ago, walls and foundations were buried from when families used to live here.

As he used his machete to clear a pathway he explained to me his families involvement in cleaning up a portion of the land.  His astonishment at the quantity of pollution was evident.  “Several years ago we were cleaning up a portion of this land, and a small fire spread across the mangroves, it burned for several days and while it was unfortunate, it burned all the trash.  So all of this, all of this is new.”

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Styrofoam food containers, single use beverage containers and other signs of human consumption are mixed with natural organic plant material at the  Mangroves shoreline.

What amazed me the most is that there are significant barriers at the waters edge that should in theory capture and limit the spread of rubbish in this area.  Large portions of debris can be found up to 50 feet inland from the shoreline.  According to Ahoia, much of this pollution comes directly from the Village of Nu’uuli and the multiple streams that discharge into the bay. His disheartened amazement at the quantities of pollution is evident throughout our entire walk.  “Where does all this come from?”, he asks shaking his head.  “People don’t take care of their garbage and it ends up here.”  It appears that this debris then floats with the currents until it comes to the shoreline where wind and varying tides carry it inland.

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Nu’uuli Mangroves – 10 -30 feet inland, you can see the waterline

Managing this pollution is a multi step process that begins with personal responsibility.  Putting trash in its place and not littering are the first solutions to preventing this type of pollution to occur.  Secondary measures are to avoid purchasing items that are common pollutants like Styrofoam take out containers.  Requesting your local business purchase environmentally responsible packaging and traveling with personal beverage containers are additional measures to preventing the problem.

Additionally,  active mitigation – or cleaning up these type of areas is also important.  Forming a group of friends and family members, faith based community, or other group that gathers regularly is a great way to make an impact on pollution in your local area.  By taking people out to clean up existing trash, we spread awareness and educate people about the impact litter makes.  This blog on tips to running a successful community cleanup can be a great place to start you on starting your own cleanup group.   If you are interested in helping clean up American Samoa please contact the EPA  by email :info@epa.as.gov  or call them directly at 684.633.2304

 

Issues island nations face with modern consumption practices.

Beach debris at Lion’s Park -Tutuilia, American Samoa shows the impacts of both localized littering and ocean debris being deposited on the shoreline.

In the modern era, gone are the days when whole island villages consumed all the food they needed by planting gardens, fishing in the ocean and picking food off of the trees.  With the modernization of consumption practices comes a whole new slew of issues island nations have to face.  These items can be listed in three major categories:  health, infrastructure and pollution.  Over the last 40 years as consumption practices around the world have significantly changed the way island communities interact with the world around them.

Non Communicable Diseases – Issues with Health

One of the largest problems with modernization of island communities is the overall diet that is being consumed by the population as a whole.  According to the World Health Organization, a transition has occurred from pathogen based diseases to food intake and activity based health concerns.  In the 2011 report on American Samoa the WHO reports;

“The most serious health issues relate to the increase in chronic diseases associated with lifestyle, with their roots in improper nutrition and physical inactivity. Significant increases in the prevalence of obesity, in both sexes and at increasingly younger ages, are associated with a number of these conditions. Hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, type II diabetes mellitus and its complications, arthritis, gout and some forms of cancer are among the most important chronic diseases. (http://www.wpro.who.int/countries/asm/1FAMSpro2011_finaldraft.pdf)

These dietary concerns are largely focused on the prevalence of foods packaged in metal lined plastic bags.  Prepackaged foods fall out of shipping containers like waves on a shore.  The names and varieties are as diverse as the country of origin the store owners call home.  In American Samoa, local markets are rarely operated by indigenous islanders and are instead run by entrepreneurs from places like Vietnam and China.  As part of the big picture of the problems with the local economy, this is one of the issues that many may point to regarding causes of money leaving the local economy at a catastrophic rate.  What can be said to be growing in America Samoa at an enormous rate is the wasteline of children.  With the prevalence of packaged food, the tastes of children are turning to this highly addictive, easy to consume food.  And the results are showing.  Diabetes, anemia, cancer and heart disease are all appearing as part of a modernized Samoa that are not part of it’s history and culture.  According to a guest speaker at a recent farming education event, the island of American Samoa is currently facing a 40% or greater population diagnosis of Diabetes.  This staggering statistic is supported by the American Diabetes Association

Pollution – What happens to all that packaging?

 Another part of the island life that was never part of it’s original heritage is the packaging from these manufactured goods.  Items like steel food containers, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and bags with a metallic lining are being shipped to the island and are offloaded from shipping containers by the tens of thousands every couple of weeks.  With these imported materials comes a requirement to dispose of these materials on island or export them for reclamation of the natural resources they contain.  In the case of many Pacific Island Nations with no recycling programs, the eventuality for the majority of these items is the community landfill.   For islands with recycling initiatives in place, these programs are often source separated materials – requiring individualized participation at a community drop off point instead of curbside pickup.  The need to expand collection he problem can be addressed by acquiring the next stage in technology, MRF Units.  The issue is expanding the capacity to recycle to include single stream sources like generated from public recycling containers like those found in community parks and at business locations, further allowing or even mandating by law – curbside collection that occurs in most, but not all, states.

Littering is a common behaviour in American Samoa.

Aluminum cans are littered into this hole in the sidewalk on a regular basis even though they are collected multiple times a week. This type of mentality shows the lack of education and need for local recycling programs.

What do you do when there is no concentrated focus on recycling as part of the cultural norm?  Unfortunately, as is often seen in American Samoa, where the focus of recycling does not exist – excessive littering and open burning of trash does.  This creates two specific problems.  One, emissions from burning trash are often toxic, especially when burning plastics and hazardous materials like batteries.  In addition, island based littering adds to the global burden of mitigating ocean pollution efforts by groups like The Plastic Pollution Coalition and 5 Gyres.  Due to the creation of litter on island nations combined with relatively short distances for litter to travel to reach the ocean,  much of this debris can become ocean debris as it enters streams and estuaries that feed into global currents.

With limited space to increase infrastructure, meet growing population needs and prepare for rising sea levels  expected with continued melting of the global ice shelves and glaciers; island governments will face many difficulties between balancing the population’s desires for manufactured and consumer goods and the need manage the waste stream produced by a growing consumption of these goods.  Without the implementation of infrastructure to separate and process the packaging from these goods, many governments are likely to find themselves beyond reasonable capacity in managing their island’s waste streams.

Unfortunately, even with a focus toward capturing recycling goods, there are other issues to be focused on throughout the search to develop solutions.  One reason recycling programs often have difficulty taking off is the cost of shipping materials off island.  When local businesses ship items inbound for the community to purchase, it’s easy to add the costs of shipping these items into the retail price.  However, without enhanced manufactures responsibility to reclaim or assist with the costs of shipping the items or their packaging off island, governments will continue to find the cost of shipping recycled goods to be greater than the resale value of the raw materials themselves.  It will only be with a blend of government action, education, and increased infrastructure that the combined issues of healthy lifestyles and waste management can be effectively tackled.

Water – the ups and downs in American Samoa

Fresh clean unadulterated water, there’s nothing like it.  Unfortunately this natural resource is becoming scarcer and scarcer and the years go by.  Now you have to live in the right places to get access to the best water.  As a citizen of the United States of America, I admit that I’ve grown up with the privilege of clean water to a degree that I never thought twice about it.  It didn’t matter where I lived or visited in the states, clean water was always available and for most of my life, it was free.

With the advent of the plastic bottle, this has changed considerably.  Instead of free access to water wherever one goes, water is a high profit commodity.  Virtually every store or market has plastic water for sale and this water is causing communities to eliminate their access points to free water using infrastructure like water fountains for public use.  The concept of free water from water fountains is one that many of the latest generations don’t understand.

Now corporations like Nestle are making millions of dollars and are draining the water supplies of drought stricken areas like California.  Currently there is a petition to tell corporations like Sprouts Market to stop selling plastic water bottled illegally and in places where it takes away from the needed and scarce supplies locally.

Here in America Samoa, plastic water is a way of life.  This is an unfortunate reality based on several factors, the primary being the way the islanders have tended to their natural resources.  While things are getting better than they were two decades ago pollution is still a problem here and littering is a way of life for many.  Water quality is impacted by a lack of infrastructure and for decades piggeries (pig farms) polluted the water with fecal matter that went unchecked.  Here roughly 10% of homes are missing either running water or a toilet.  Additionally, the average annual income is only $13,000 according to the CIA’s website.  So things are not very good here when you look at pollution and income.  What’s shockingly worse is that the water quality is atrocious.

Taking a look at the American Samoa EPA Integrated Water Quality 
Monitoring and Assessment Report will leave one with their jaws dropped wide open.  With approximately 250 miles of inland fresh water pathways, and about 150 tested – none were deemed safe for drinking water with pathogens being the primary culprit.  Additionally, 15 beaches were tested as unsafe for the Memorial Day weekend.    These beaches are primarily located within the inhabited portions of the island where human impact has a negative effect on the water.  Fortunately there are pristine areas where most natives don’t travel.  These are generally found at the end of mile or longer hikes through national parks land and are definitely a winner for the traveler to enjoy.  More on these beaches can be found here, thanks to Lonely Planet

So what do people on this island do for water, one might be asking by this time.  The reality is they import it.  Some have installed rain water collection systems to provide fresh drinking water, others put out buckets to collect water when it rains.  The one thing on the main island is that people don’t drink the tap water.  Instead they buy plastic bottles of water.  With the average income of $13,000 and a gallon of water costing $2.50 at the store or about $1,000 year per person at a gallon of water per day or between 4 and 6 thousand dollars a year for the average family.  Additionally, this represents a quantity of imported water from California that is staggering to quantify.  With the average case of bottled water utilizing 3 quarts of oil to manufacture and transport, the CO2 expense to supply water has some serious impacts on global climate change.

As the EPA, American Samoan Power Authority and Government officials work together to improve infrastructure hopefully we will see drastic changes in these facts over the coming decade.  But for now, American Samoa is tragically addicted to plastic water and this habit is directly connected to keeping her people in a tragic poverty cycle.  Combined with the fact that there is currently no national recycling program leaves much to be desired here in solving problems with pollution and trash management.