Why breathing might kill you and your child

The effect of air pollution on human health is increasingly coming on the spotlight as a key threat to life.

Researchers have confirmed that air pollution is a major contributor to child mortality and incidences of non-communicable diseases.

Managing air pollution is therefore becoming a key development agenda for governments wishing to guarantee quality of life for their citizens.

Available global data confirms that reduction of exposure to air pollution is especially important in protecting children’s health. More than half of all pneumonia deaths in children below the age of five are caused by air pollution. In 2014, the Environment ministry gazetted the air quality regulations under the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (EMCA).

This provided an opportunity to address this urgent and priority issue.

The impact of air pollution exceeds the traditional environmental issues of climate change and deforestation. It is direct and urgent.

Africa in general and Kenya, in particular, have been left behind on this matter. Air quality will in future determine Kenya’s workforce, the health budget, infrastructure, agriculture, clothing and many other human undertakings.

Early exposure

Early life exposure is associated with increased risk for chronic diseases. The elderly as well as persons with pre-existing cardio-respiratory conditions and diabetes are particularly at risk. Workers exposed to increased levels of air pollution are at a high risk, and need to be protected by introducing adequate measures.

By reducing air pollution levels, Kenya can lower the burden of diseases such as stroke, heart illnesses, lung cancer and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases such as asthma.

The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population will be, both in the long- and short-term. The World Heath Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines: Global Update 2005, provides an assessment of health effects of air pollution and thresholds for harmful pollution levels.

In 2016, 91 per cent of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guideline levels were not met. Kenya was one the affected countries. Ambient (outdoor) air pollution in the towns and rural areas was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016.

Some 91 per cent of those premature deaths occurred in low and middle income countries, most of them in South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. Kenya has not yet quantified the mortality rate linked to air pollution, but it cannot be far from the situation in Asian countries.

Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient homes, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would limit key sources of outdoor air pollution.

Indoor smoke is also a serious health risk for some 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes with biomass, kerosene fuels and coal.

Environmental factors

The WHO has consistently indicated that only 25 per cent of the diseases can be attributed to environmental factors. According to 2008 data for Kenya, for every 100,000 cases some 109 people die of chronic respiratory diseases.

For children, for every 1,000 deaths, 17 are attributed to air pollution.

The first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health took place at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, from October 30 to November 1. The conference was organised in response to a resolution of the 68th World Health Assembly in 2015, in which Health ministers called for a greater response to prevent air pollution-related diseases, exposure to air pollution and their costs to society.

The “Roadmap for an enhanced global response to the health effects of air pollution” adopted at the 69th World Health Assembly in 2016, recommended a global conference on the subject.

The conference considered the scientific evidence on the correlation between air pollution and health. It emphasised access to clean energy in homes, air quality in cities, access to sustainable transport and the Paris agreement on climate change.

Reaching this goal will save significant global health care costs every year. The wider economic impacts of diseases and deaths due to ambient air pollution amount to billions of shillings and affect Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

To reach this goal and resolve this health crisis, bold and prompt action is needed. There is need to avoid dirty fuels and technologies in transport and energy production and to stop uncontrolled burning of solid and agricultural waste. Other measures are reduction in use of fertilisers, promoting clean technologies and fuels and green cities.

All the countries and cities will need to achieve WHO air quality guideline levels. This can be done by assessing health and economic impacts of air pollution and by catalysing actions that reduce it.

Addressing air pollution calls for multi-sectoral efforts that build upon synergies between human health, climate change and growth priorities. Reducing air pollutants will lower the concentration of climate pollutants such as black carbon, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.

Mr Kihumba is the technical advisor on the Unintentionally Produced Organic Pollutants Project in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry

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