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Breathe In, Breathe Out: Nigeria’s Air Quality a Silent Health Hazard

Air pollution has been declared a global public health emergency because it is associated with numerous health risks. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Editor’s Note: In this week’s Thought Leadership Piece, Nigeria Health Watch Programme Coordinator Patience Adejo explores the state of Nigeria’s air quality, how it affects the health and well-being of Nigerians, and what needs to be done to ensure we can pass on a country with cleaner air to our children.
Thirty-nine year old widow Mama Caro lived in a small village in Kogi State where she struggled to earn a living by frying and selling garri. She struggled to make ends meet, but she was determined to see her two daughters through school. She worked tirelessly every day to keep up with the high financial demands from her daughter’s school, because she believed so much in empowering the girl child.
One day, while frying garri to supply to her customers, she began to struggle with her breathing. She gasped for air and fainted. Mama Caro never regained consciousness and died a few hours after being rushed to a health facility, leaving her two daughters behind. Her medical report stated that she had died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. One of the causes of this disease is the long-term exposure to air pollution, which would have started from her frequent exposure to smoke while frying garri.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is the largest contributor to the top four noncommunicable diseases — stroke, lung cancer, chronic respiratory disease and heart disease — accounting for between one-third and one-quarter of those deaths. It is also responsible for 50% of childhood pneumonia deaths. About seven million deaths each year are attributed to outdoor and household air pollution.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Air pollutants are sometimes visible and sometimes not. While the body can eliminate larger particles of pollutants, it does not eliminate the smaller ones. These smaller pollutants are called fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5). These are tiny particles in the air that makes it seem dark and blurred. They penetrate deep into the lung passageways and are the most harmful pollutants to the health of humans.
Air pollution has been declared a global public health emergency and some countries, including Nigeria, exceed the WHO guideline level for annual PM 2.5 exposure. The 2019 world air quality report published by AirVisual reveals that Nigeria is the 5th most polluted country in Africa, with Kano being the most polluted city in Nigeria followed by Port Harcourt. This is not encouraging given that Nigeria is the first African country to establish a national institutional mechanism for environmental protection.
Efforts must be intensified to improve our air quality as breathing polluted air kills silently and many people do not know about the health risks associated with air pollution.

Image source: 2019 World Air Quality Report

Some sources of outdoor pollution are smoke from burning trash, generator emissions, road dust, industrial emissions, emissions from refineries and petrochemicals, gas flaring and pipeline explosions. Harmful cooking practices such as using kerosene stoves and solid fuels like wood, and cooking with open fires are also sources of household pollution.

Breathtaking: What Is PM2.5?

Like Mama Caro, many people keep falling ill and dying prematurely as a result of these air pollutants. A BBC Africa videoreleased on the 20th of February 2020 exposed some of the air pollution issues faced in Port Harcourt.

Image source: Air Quality Communication Workshop

Investments in cleaner transportation systems, energy-efficient housing, power generation, and better industrial waste management can help to reduce key sources of air pollution.

Nigeria’s National Environmental Standards and Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA) regulates air quality in Nigeria through the National Policy on Environment. The policy captures sound environmental principles intended to bring about environmental sustainability, and highlights some key strategies to achieving clean air. These include:

While NESREA is working to achieve clean air in Nigeria with these strategies, there should be collaboration with other ministries, departments and agencies of government to implement the policy. Enforcing the National Environmental policy should not be left only for NESREA and the Ministry of Environment.

The Agency should also include definite timelines for implementation of the policy in order to follow up and track achievements.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 7 and 13 focus on affordable and clean energy as well as climate action. Nigeria should develop programmes to increase access to clean and safe household energy and improve systems in place to monitor air pollution. It is also important that the government set up more air quality monitoring stations in Nigeria and make data on the air quality more accessible to Nigerians, so that everyone is aware of the level of pollution they are exposed to in their cities.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Nigeria should increase investment in renewable sources of energy, increase green spaces in urban areas, invest in cleaner cooking solutions, and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.

The country can also benefit from the Clean Household Energy Solutions Toolkit (CHEST) that WHO is developing to promote clean and safe interventions in homes. CHEST provides the tools for countries and programmes to create or evaluate policies that expand clean household energy access and use.

Increased awareness about the health risks of air pollution is also necessary so that Nigerians better understand why they should avoid harmful air pollution practices. As a country we cannot continue to watch as air pollution silently kills our loved ones. We must take action now if we are to leave a cleaner Nigeria for our future generations.
Do you know the level of pollutants in the air where you live? What are you doing to ensure Nigeria has cleaner air? Let us know on Twitter @nighealthwatch and Facebook @nigeriahealthwatch.

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