July 11, 2019

Tackling the scourge of air pollution in Nigeria

Body odour

How air pollution affects your body

By Kayode Ojewale

AIR is an important and vital requirement for life. Air sustains life, but it can also snuff out life. With air one survives and lives; with air one could also die. So it all boils down to the quality of that air.

air pollution, Nigeria

How air pollution affects your body

Every living organism requires air for growth and survival. There is no life without air. No air, no life on earth. Human beings need air to breathe because oxygen is the propeller that allows body cells to produce energy from the food we eat. The role air plays in human life cannot be overemphasized because it is the main reason for living.

Air is life, life is air. Air is naturally clean and safe for human and animals, but due to industrialisation the air gradually becomes polluted making it unsafe for inhaling or breathing. Indoor or outdoor, one is at the risk of this polluted and unhealthy air because almost every breath taken here in Nigeria is like the breath of death.

Passing through Ile-Epo Bus-stop, just after Katangua (Superbus stop), along the Abeokuta-Lagos expressway in Lagos, one cannot but perceive the unbearable stench oozing out from the stagnant water in the drainage channels, particularly in front of the market area where food items are being sold. While some people say the disturbing smell is from the neighbouring dumpsite, Katangua, which houses heaps of refuse in that area, others say it is due to the blocked drainage channels. The contaminated and polluted air around that area became visibly worse due to the rains lately.

Everywhere becomes flooded anytime there is a downpour. The toxic smell in that area becomes a source of worry and concern not only for the passers-by but also for those who buy and sell at the Ile-Epo Market given the health challenge and risk this can potentially pose. The quality of air around that area is so bad that one can literally begin to feel that every breath taken is choking the life out of one.

According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, in Lagos, many people died from diseases related to indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012. Also, Onitsha, Kaduna, Aba, Umuahia were among four of the 20 African cities with the worst quality of air in the world according to 2016 WHO report.

In a recent publication on an annual State of Global Air Report published by the Health Effects Institutes, HEI, air quality in Nigeria and at least 10 other countries is among the deadliest anywhere on earth with higher than ambient air pollution death rates as a result of the environmental hazards combined with extreme pollution sources like generator fumes, vehicle emissions and crop burning among others.

The HEI chart reveals that the air we breathe in Nigeria is the deadliest in Africa and the fourth-deadliest globally with 150 deaths per 100,000 people attributable to pollution. Only Afghanistan with 406; Pakistan, 207 and India, 195 deaths per 100,000 people per country exceed the Nigerian figure.

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The reason for these staggering figures of deaths due to air pollution in Nigeria is not farfetched as most Nigerians are daily exposed to polluted air indoor and outdoor. A huge volume of deadly thick smoke is visibly seen escaping from the exhaust pipes of poorly-tuned engines of most vehicles on our roads which in turn makes the air toxic. Worn-out generators are also not left out as they belch out smoky fumes of noxious emissions thereby polluting the air. Indiscriminate refuse dumping on roads and at illegal dumpsites also contributes to air pollution.

Air pollution from indoor sources is the single largest contributor to the negative health effects of polluted air in Nigeria. A kerosene stove which burns with sooty flames, smoke emitted from burning of refuse wastes and unwanted materials within the neighbourhood and lack of proper ventilation all lead to high concentrations of particulate matter (hazardous solid and liquid particles suspended in air) and other pollutants in the home.

Air pollution is now the fourth-highest cause of death worldwide, with smoking, high blood pressure and poor diet topping the list. In Nigeria, air pollution is hardly listed among causes of deaths on death certificates, yet the effects of air pollution exposure such as lung cancer and other diseases are fatal and deadly. Air pollution is also known to cause heart and respiratory diseases, and damage to people’s nerves, brain, kidneys, liver and other vital organs.

In 2018, WHO revealed that an estimated seven million people worldwide die every year from outdoor and household air pollution.

To curb the rising threat of air pollution, a WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira said: “Most sources of urban outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand actions by cities, as well as national and international policymakers to promote cleaner transport, more efficient energy production and waste management.” DrNeira further added: “Reducing industrial smokestack emissions, increasing the use of renewable power sources, like solar and wind, and prioritizing rapid transit…are among the suites of available and affordable strategies.”

Ministries of Health, Environment and Agriculture are all urged to make air quality a health and development priority. For the rural dwellers, we advise that there should be an increased public awareness of the deadly consequences of polluted air in the household or outdoor. When the quality of air in Nigeria improves, health expenses incurred on air pollution-related diseases drop drastically and more lives are saved as life expectancy grows.

*Ojewale, a commentator on public issues, wrote from  Lagos.