Air pollution in Sub-Saharan Africa 
Air pollution is the release of pollutants into the air that are harmful to human health and the environment. Such pollutants could be gases, particles or biological molecules. The slightest increase or decrease in the structure of gases could lower the survival chances of any living thing. Air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa is a particular challenge that requires attention.

Why Air Pollution is Prevalent in Low-Income Nations

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low-and middle-income countries the hardest,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a September 2021 news release.

The relationship between poverty and air pollution in sub-Saharan African countries is evident because impoverished people are more likely to have greater exposure to higher concentrations of air pollutants. In contrast, high-income countries seem to have a lower rate of exposure to air pollution.

Environmental experts Paul Mohai and Robin Saha conducted a study in 2015. The study examined U.S. communities before and after hazardous waste facilities were present. The study found that facilities between 1966 and 1995 chose to locate in areas with low-income family populations.

Mohai and Saha believe that facilities move into low-income areas because of the cheap land cost, low cost of labor and minimum community resistance. The presence of these facilities and the air pollution that comes with their activities leave low-income countries facing detrimental health consequences.

The Health Effects of Air Pollution

Air pollution holds the largest environmental impact on human health. It can cause a reduction in lung growth and function and lead to respiratory infections and aggravated asthma in any child exposed. More specifically, cardiovascular disease is an ailment that plagues sub-Saharan Africa due to household air pollution. Solid fuels for cooking, heating and lighting are the main perpetrators of this disease.

According to the WHO, household air pollution (HAP) was responsible for 4.3 million premature deaths in 2012 due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancers. Research proves that the level of HAP surpasses the recommended WHO guidelines and the number of people exposed to pollutants has increased from 333 million to 646 million.

Respiratory ailments are very common among children in cities with high concentrations of pollutants. According to the Open Knowledge Repository, this impairs their learning and development capabilities. Unfortunately, as adults, they end up with minimum qualifications and skills. With little education and experience, they struggle economically and live life in poverty.

Treatments are available for many of the ill-health issues that occur with air pollution. However, living in low-income countries makes access to affordable health care scarce. The relationship between ill-health and poverty seems inevitable because of this fact.

Disadvantaged people are unable to afford health care, making poverty an obstacle to overcome before receiving adequate care. As a result, families have to deal with the loss of income from out-of-pocket health care fees. To care for relatives, some family members may have to quit school or their jobs. These circumstances only exacerbate situations of poverty.

Air Pollution Monitoring

Air pollution stands as a significant global issue. However, the exact extent of the issue is unknown and immeasurable due to the lack of monitoring. Aware of this situation, in 2019, Dan Westervelt, an associate researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory received funding to install an air-pollution monitoring network in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. Westervelt believes that the issue of air pollution cannot reach a resolution without quantifiable data.

Monitoring provided data in Kinshasa in the DRC, depicting the average fine particulate matter level to be five times greater than the normal level. Like Kinshasa, the monitoring will provide similar data on the other two megacities for analysis in order to address the air pollution epidemic.

Updated WHO Air Quality Guidelines

Fortunately, the World Health Organization provides guidelines to ensure good health. After 15 years, WHO updated its guidelines to improve air quality. The new guidelines detail the damage that air pollution causes the human body. The WHO’s solution to revitalize human health is to reduce levels of key air pollutants and emissions.

Six pollutants could have major impacts on health upon exposure. These pollutants are “particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.” Fossil fuels, wildfires and agriculture produce particulate matter.

Ground-level ozone comes from the emissions of cars, factories, plants and even some solvents. Burning fossil fuel produces nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide pollutants. Incomplete combustion containing fuel creates carbon monoxide pollutants.

If countries stay below suggested air quality guideline levels, significant health risks could decrease. Although this may have a small impact on communities with low rates of air pollution, it would immensely impact those suffering from higher rates. Air pollution dominates areas with people who are unable to afford higher quality living, exacerbating their poverty further with health issues. With lower rates of air pollution, disadvantaged communities could have a higher survival rate and fewer health challenges.

WHO’s updated air quality guidelines strive to eliminate future problems of air pollution and save millions of lives. With these guidelines, air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa should reduce and sub-Saharan African countries could inevitably see improvement in their quality of life.

– Destiny Jackson
Photo: Flickr