The Risks of Pneumoconiosis in Old Havana

Regina Cano

The challenge to repair.  Photo: Juan Suarez
The challenge to repair. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — While Erasmo warned me about and described what pneumoconiosis is, a new term for me, I saw myself going into Old Havana once a week, where the movement, sounds of repairs or remodeling works make you aware about the city’s current renovation situation.

In this neighborhood – the oldest in the capital of Havana and one of most busiest pedestrian neighborhoods thanks to the visitors that come to walk along its streets, those who work there and its own neighbors – it’s normal for an inseparable element to follow you, that clings to your skin and goes into your lungs without asking for permission first.

This is how dust that is created because of these works – cement, sand and gravel and other building materials – which are trying to save this place, will escort you for the most part of your journey, as the level of investment goes from minor to major repairs, which is being carried out by both state and private companies.

Residents in Old Havana are the ones who have been directly exposed to this attack to a great extent. Accepting this constant uproar and disorder has meant restoration of utilities where they live, that is to say electricity, water and gas networks, which have shown the insides of the majority of the most visited streets for months at a time, the ones that were dug up three times, for each of these systems could be put in.

The implications of constantly inhaling this volatile dust, made up of miniscule particles and which therefore settle on domestic equipment, the ground and walls, isn’t a conscious danger to those who live in this area. This is due to a lack of basic information being made available to them, depriving them of any precautionary measures being taken beforehand, although we don’t all react in the same way to the same level of exposure.

Pneumoconiosis is the result of the inhalation, filtering and retention of dust, whose larger particles remain deposited in higher air tubes, which can probably be expelled, while the very small particles (less than 5 micrometers) reach deeper areas. This is where they can lodge themselves and cause this disease – according to one of the documents I consulted – and includes the inhalation of cement, kaolin, talc, asbestos, metals and other substances, which can provoke environmental and occupational cancer.

One of the most visible triggers for encouraging the restoration of Old Havana is the interest that tourism holds and which has given recognition and prizes to those who have presented these solutions.

Today, the majority of humans on a global scale are exposed to environmental toxins, no matter how developed a country is. However, the most critical issue here in Cuba is that while they are – consciously or unconsciously – sacrificing the lives of those who have to live with these repairs and the lack of caution that is being taken to prevent this from happening.  This especially happens in the most vulnerable population sectors, due to their economic situation – low and medium level – great overpopulation, recurring collapses and demolitions, as well as the proliferation of garbage dumps (link), which is the case here.

Photo: Juan Suarez
Photo: Juan Suarez

This high level of pollution on a daily basis for the capital’s inhabitants, combined with the dangerous fumes of its cars, buses and trucks, a poor diet and other factors, as well as those created by every individual’s own choices, puts us at the mercy of living a low quality of life, which will give us less of a chance of being healthy and surviving in a not too distant future.

Repair works in Old Havana are also sustained by the local mentality of: “but what can we do” or “we don’t have any choice” (when they’re asked), without conceiving any other possibility other than accepting to live with these risks out of necessity. As if reducing them at least, would mean not making the dream come true, which is what people in charge of the projects say?

And so its narrow streets hold street sellers, locals and visitors who are preoccupied with their own urgent daily needs to stay afloat. They absorb their inhabitants with other more pressing needs, where every piece of fruit, vegetable, and piece of bread, root vegetable, everything that you can buy to eat comes with a layer of dust that you can’t always shake off and can even go by unnoticed.

And while in Cuba there are campaigns against threats such as Zika, Dengue, Leptospriosis and other diseases, to look out for the Cuban people’s wellbeing, in Old Havana, another relatively dangerous attacker is allowed to run free, which is expanding its playing field seamlessly and which visitors take back home with them as something more than just a “souveneir”.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

One thought on “The Risks of Pneumoconiosis in Old Havana

  • It’s a shame the local residents aren’t informed and told how to protect themselves, if they can, or provided face masks perhaps; especially elderly or those with lung or breathing problems.
    By the way the picture is lovely.

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