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Urgent action needed over air pollution in Nairobi

By Dr Subiri Obwogo | March 18th 2015 at 23:55:19 GMT +0300

NAIROBI: Congratulations to your esteemed editorial team (The Standard, March 16, 2015) on highlighting the growing problem of air pollution in Nairobi.

The controversy surrounding an MP who recorded colleagues confessing to receiving bribes overshadowed news that the air Nairobi residents breathe daily is 10 times above WHO’s threshold of 20 microgrammes per cubic metre.

This potentially puts many at risk of heart, stroke and lung diseases, including cancers, and premature deaths.

A study carried out by the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology in partnership with Sweden’s Gottenburg University and Columbia University’s Earth Institute singled out Ngara, Thika Road, Ronald Ngala and Tom Mboya Street as having high levels of toxic emissions.

According to a World Bank report, the number of vehicles on Nairobi roads doubles every six years.

The sources of outdoor air pollution include cars and lorries that emit small particles of diesel soot and gases, as well as from industrial emissions.

Air pollution is now classified as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and dirty-air is linked to cancers of the lung and bladder.

Outdoor air pollution is mainly attributed to poor quality of air resulting from particles of dust, minerals and water.

These particles, which are too small to be seen by the naked eye, settle in the lungs, causing irritation and inflammation in the heart.

This calls for planners to shift to clean modes of power generation, prioritise rapid mass urban transit, including rail, walking and cycling networks in cities.

It also calls for a shift to cleaner heavy-duty diesel vehicles and low-emission vehicles and fuels, including fuels with reduced sulphur content.

WHO estimates seven million people worldwide die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution, with more than half of the deaths linked to indoor smoke from wood, coal and biomass cooking stoves.

Air pollution kills more people than smoking, road accidents and diabetes combined. In Kenya, it is reported that respiratory diseases caused the highest number of illnesses totaling 14,823,864 in 2013 alone.

At the African Transport Ministers Summit held in Nairobi last year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned of dire consequences from environmental pollution unless African countries adopt clean energy sources, as opposed to fossil fuels.

Unless action is taken, the situation will resemble China and India where wearing facemasks is the norm.

There is no evidence that wearing masks reduces the effects of air pollution. Critics argue the practice gives the impression we can live with pollution.

Around 3 billion people in the world rely on coal, wood and open-air fires for household cooking, according to WHO estimates.

These fuels produce harmful pollutants such as fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Poor women and children in rural areas and slums suffer disproportionately from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood stoves.

Lead is another leading toxic agent for children and even low levels of exposure cause irreversible damage to brain and nerves. An estimated 143,000 deaths per year result from lead poisoning, often linked to lead paint.

Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities every year, according to WHO.

A majority of these paints would not meet regulatory standards in highly industrialised countries.

Next time your child uses decorative paint to colour his workbook, particularly in yellow and red colours where lead is added as a pigment, he may be exposed to this deadly toxin.

In addition, first-hand (inhaled smoke), second and third-hand smoke are major sources of indoor air pollution, causing cancers and contributing to pneumonia, lung infections, asthma and ear infections in children.

Third-hand, unlike second-hand smoke whose effects are removed when smoking ceases, is characterised by invisible residues (potent carcinogens) left behind months after second-hand smoke has disappeared.

These residues then cling to hair, skin, clothes, walls, bedding and related surfaces and cannot be removed by cleaning.

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