Air Pollution: The Silent Killer (World Environment Day 2019)

FADE Environmental Articles, Weekly Column Tags: , , , ,

Breathe in. Breathe out. Congratulations, the air you have just taken in might have placed you among the 91 percent of the world’s population that routinely take in polluted air.

Breathing is an act we perform instinctively. We do it without even thinking about it. It requires little to no effort from us. Hence, we take it for granted. For almost everything we take for our survival, we are conscious of the quality. We check out the ingredients of food, when they expire, how they are made. We pay attention to the water we drink, deeming any with particles as unclean and unfit for consumption. But many don’t do the same to another core survival requirement – the air we breathe. How often do we seriously consider the quality of air we breathe in? How often do we seek to improve on the air we breathe in? How often do we think about the effects of breathing in unclean air?

You see, air pollution is all around us. It’s both indoors and outdoors. It’s in the cities and villages alike. Whether we realize it or not, air pollution affects us all. Without air there can be no life but breathing polluted air condemns us to a life of disease and early death.

In Nigeria, we are very acquainted to polluted air which stems from too many sources from the foul smell given off by our gutters that have become our waste dumping sites to the thick fog of smoke that follows a large percentage of vehicles’ in the country especially commercial buses and taxis. Lest we forget, the emissions released by our dear friend – generators – a staple in many homes and businesses in country. Then, there’s the traditional cooking methods of burning firewood that still persists – infact many swear by the sweetness of food made that way e.g firewood jollof rice is preferred to the  one made with a burner. All these and more contribute to the dirtying our air. You certainly must smell it but can’t you feel it too? It is the cause of that wooziness you feel after been assaulted by the smoke emitting from that vehicle that just passed you; from the firewood or stove that has just been put out. It is behind the nauseous feeling you get in your stomach whenever you pass that gutter or heap of waste. Yes, we are not immune to the effects of air pollution and no, it is more serious than you think.

Air pollution is an invisible killer that lurks all around us preying on young and old.  Reports state that every year around 7 million premature deaths are attributable to air pollution—a staggering 800 people every hour or 13 every minute. Overall, air pollution is responsible for more deaths than many other risk factors, including malnutrition, alcohol use and physical inactivity.

There is no doubt today that air pollution is a global public health emergency. It threatens everyone from unborn babies to children walking to school, to women cooking over open fires.

On the street and inside the house, the sources of air pollution can be very different, yet their effects are equally deadly. To understand the troubling reality of air pollution, let’s examine the statistics that has been laid out by the world’s leading health organization, World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO, 43% of lung disease and lung cancer deaths are attributable to air pollution. This silent killer causes 1.8 million deaths due to lung cancer and lung disease every year. We are also told that 24% of all stroke deaths can be attributed to air pollution. This means air pollution is responsible for 1.4 million stroke deaths yearly.  Then the root cause of 25% of all heart diseases deaths can be traced to polluted air which sums up to about 2.4 million deaths annually.

Globally, 93 per cent of all children breathe air that contains higher concentrations of pollutants than the WHO considers safe to human health. As a result, 600,000 children die prematurely each year because of air pollution. As if that were not enough, exposure to dirty air also harms brain development, leading to cognitive and motor impairments, while at the same time putting children at greater risk for chronic disease later in life.

Dr Dike Okwelum, a medical expert and FADE volunteer who graciously contributed to this piece explains that the level of effects usually depends on the length of time of exposure as well as the kind and concentration of chemicals and particles exposed to. Short-term effects are irritations of the eyes, nose, throat, upper respiratory infections like bronchitis, pneumonitis, eye inflammation like conjunctivitis. Others include headaches, nausea, anorexia, allergic skin reactions, and aggravation of medical condition in individuals with asthma, and emphysema. Long-term effects are chronic cardiopulmonary disease.  Air pollutants are mostly carcinogenic and living in highly polluted areas puts people at risk of skin and lung cancer, as well as damage to the brain, nerves, liver, and kidneys in newborns.

Persistent coughing, wheezing is often observed among city folks in polluted areas. It is important to note that an increase in atmospheric temperature is directly proportional to increase in air pollutants. Crowded cities and trafficked suburbs are hotspots for outdoor air pollution.. Our cities are littered with tanker drivers who release thick black smoke from their exhaust into the atmosphere. These tankers alone aren’t to blame for increased air pollution. Our factories, industries, burning of fossil fuels and indoor air pollution also contribute handsomely to a polluted atmosphere as already stated earlier. Another culprit is the flaring of gas from oil operations which are extremely harmful to our atmosphere and sadly, policies haven’t been properly put in place to reduce these operations.

Asides the effect air pollution has on our health, it is just as dangerous to the environment. Our Ozone Layer which protects ecosystems on our planet is depleting due to the effect of air pollution and global warming is caused by a depletion of Ozone Layer.

Regardless of your social class, you are directly affected by the effects of air pollution. Air that is unsafe for breathing affects us equally.

Recall the Black soot in Port Harcourt that was first noticed sometime around November 2016. Residents discovered that there is a cloud of soot above them and it found its way into their lives and became a big problem. Social Media campaigns were started and from the images and videos shared online, you could see that this wasn’t a false alarm.

Residents couldn’t help but notice that their feet would become black after walking barefoot around the house. Clothes become black after they’ve been left to dry on the line. It’s been almost 3 years since our attention was brought to this issue and nothing has been done since then. The air may seem clearer now but we haven’t bothered to analyse the impact that the black soot which still routinely darken the clouds for those that live close to the gas flaring operations have had on the people and environment.

Countries around the world have started to adopt renewable sources of energy and are slowly phasing out non-renewable sources of energy due to the effects on the environment. China has announced that it will ban production of petrol and diesel cars in the nearest future and I foresee other developed countries going down the same route.

Nigeria, on the other hand, is entertaining rumors of a proposed increase in import duty on solar panels. How is this the way forward? Why are we still heavily dependent on generators as our major source of power? Asides from the unbearable noise pollution, we are not doing our environment any good by normalizing the use of generators in the majority of our households.

As the world focuses on air pollution for this period thanks to it being this year’s theme for World Environment Day which is recognized on the 5th of June every year, we need to ensure that the urgency to act doesn’t end with surface dressing activities by government and civil societies. It is an emergency that should be treated as such. Levels of air pollution are reversible as we have seen in some cities – a prime example being Beijing. It will however, take action snot words to achieve this. Actions that cut across a collection of mitigating activities like large scale planting and preserving of trees, regulation of industrial operations to encourage cleaner ways of doing business and curb the excessive flaring of gas, proper waste management and exploring alternative sources of energy, just to name a few.

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