Friday, April 19, 2024

How Safe is the Air You Breathe?


“No society can afford to ignore air pollution, and no child should have to breathe dangerously polluted air” UNICEF Director Anthony Lake.

Air pollution is estimated to cause 7 Million premature deaths across the world every year. Deaths attributed to either indoor or ambient air pollutions. Despite being a major global epidemic, air pollution continues to characterize our atmospheres. Globally, every nine out of ten people are exposed to air pollutants of levels beyond the World Health Organization(WHO) safety thresholds. Implying that of every gulp of the air we inhale there lie potential poisons ranging from black carbon, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphate to lead.  These particulate matters(PM)are associated with a broad spectrum of acute and chronic health complications, such as cancer, stroke, lower IQs and other cardiopulmonary diseases. The developing countries predominately carry a huge burden due to growing industrialization.

Rapid industrialization is an indispensable element and a necessary instrument to the achievement of stronger economies and sustained growth in the developing worlds. The drastic growth has however left marks of environmental degradation and industrial pollution.  Kenya plays foul, with huge industrial emissions.

Figure 2 Unhealthy industrial emissions are associated with acute and chronic diseases such as stroke, heart attacks and lung cancers. image

Improper management of the industrial emissions, continue to deteriorate our atmospheres daily. Clouds of smog, irritant, choking and foul smells characterize the immediate industrial neighbourhoods. Some pollutants also surfacing as invisible particles of molecular size. These particles travel long distance far and across boundaries, through storms, rainwater and No one is safe enough.

Recently, three companies in the Kenyan capital were indefinitely closed until an assessment their environmental policy adherence is ascertained. One facility waste management company operated unlicensed, while in another, employees worked without safety gears. The closure comes days after residents of the Nairobi south area raised concerns, of choking and afoul smelly nights and early mornings. Ordeals that has left four children hospitalized with several others suffering from nose bleeds, persistent coughs vomiting and sore eyes. The incidences serve as a clear gap, in the capital’s strides to safeguard the industries dense city, that also offer home to 2.1 million citizens.

A study by Nairobi university and the Sweden University in 2015 indicated that the amount of cancer-causing elements in the air within the city is 10 times higher than the threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.

Figure 3 An estimated 17 million babies under the age of one year living in areas where air pollution is six times higher than the international thresholds: photo source Undark

Children suffer a great deal in air polluted areas due to higher relative ventilation rates, poorly developed physical defence mechanisms and lengthier exposure time outdoors. According to Toxicology and Environmental health journal report, on the burden of Disease due to Outdoor pollution, ambient air pollution due to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), is estimated cause 3% deaths as a result of cardiopulmonary disease, 5% from cancer of the trachea, bronchus and the lungs, and about 1% of mortality from acute respiratory infections in children under the age of five years globally. Breathing in particulate pollutants, additional puts children at risk of slow cognitive development due to damaged brain tissues. “Not only do pollutants harm babies’ developing lungs – they can permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

UNICEF reports that almost 17 million babies under the age of 1 year live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than the international limits.

 What need be done?

Figure 4 Air control systems to monitor air quality

Air Quality Regulations exists, however, their enforcement suffers loopholes. A coordinated effort by all parties concerned, government, non-governmental and private players is key for improved environmental protection. Enactment of law governing environmental protection, preparation of impact assessment reports on the environment by industries and public participation on environmental protection is necessary towards restoring sanity to the environment.

Governments and environmental management authorities need to invest in air control monitors as a precautionary measure to their countries environmental safety.

The campaign dubbed Breath Life is a key outlook for any developing country. Initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO, The United Nation Environment, and the Climate Clean Air Coalition(CCAC) the campaign seek to mobilize cities and individuals to protect public health and the planet from the effects of air pollution.

The campaign has been built to bring together diverse groups around common interests in order to develop a shared goal and strategy by;

Providing a platform for cities to share best practices and demonstrate progress in their journey to meet WHO air quality targets by 2030

Working with municipalities to expand monitoring efforts that can keep citizens informed and facilitate more sustainable urban development

Building demand for new solutions that are working and support municipalities in effectively implementing them in their own cities

Increasing support for the city and national action to reduce air pollution and short-lived climate pollutants to meet health and development priorities by 2020, and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030

Educating people about the burden air pollution poses to our health and our climate and provide meaningful ways to take action both locally and globally.

 Air pollution is a global threat and no country is safe enough.

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungai
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via

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