How to Stop Air Pollution in Africa
Pollution is a word that is commonly used around us. We hear it on the way to school, on the news and even while eavesdropping on elderly people just taking a ride on the train. So what exactly does pollution mean? And how did it become a topic that is now widely discussed? What is the solution to this problem we are so accustomed to, but is killing us? It has become increasingly evident that for some that the only way to retain sanity is certainly by polluting their environment and on the long run having to pay for it, or worse still, having someone else pay for it.
With this, I begin this paper with the basic definition of pollution. Pollution according to the oxford dictionary is defined as “the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects.”1 The next question you are probably asking is: what are these substances that are considered harmful enough to poison our environment and make it unfit for us to live in?
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Coming up with ideas of things that might pollute the environment is not a difficult task. Causes of pollution are habits that have been formed over time and done initially to improve our lifestyle. Examples of these are the smoke from chimneys, vehicle emissions, spraying insecticides on plants, disposal of industrial waste, and even accidents involving the handling of radioactive substances.2 How did we get from where we were to where we are today?
We talk about this menace to society but how did it really begin? It is impossible to say that people of older generations did not experience, pollution but as civilization came about and the level of industrialization rose, so did pollution.
In 1347 people began falling ill due to inappropriate waste disposal from both animals and humans, which led to the spread of diseases.3 This state of uncleanliness caused disease outbreaks, leading to the outbreak of the Bubonic plague (“Black Death”), whose vectors were rats and fleas inhibited by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.4
In the nineteenth century industrialization increased, which led to more industries and factories producing more waste, such as ”alkali works, copper works, sulfuric acid liquid, sulfate of iron from tinplate works, and by slag, cinders and small coal.”5 As the twentieth century came rolling in, water and air pollution became serious problems and as more people fell sick.6
This pollution is not only limited to the past but has rolled into the present. The world has developed and provided solutions to a lot of other real life issues we face. These issues range from transportation to health and even down to getting laundry done. Yet even with all these enhancements, it seems difficult to curb pollution. This difficulty is even brought about when countries are not honest about their emissions. A good example is China that burns more coal than they report. It is reported that they burn 17% more coal than the government initially disclosed, which equates to approximately 600 million tons of consumption.7
In recent times, we have a come to know various types of pollution, some conventional and some nonconventional, and I think, “oh wow, didn’t know that even existed”.
Generally speaking, some of the types of pollution are: air, water, soil, noise and thermal pollution8. Some others also include radioactive, visual, light and personal pollution9.
Africa is a continent rich in diversity and filled with natural resources. It is fortunate to not have to deal with natural disasters, but amidst all of this opportunity it is still lacking in a lot of areas. This brings me to the main focus of this research paper, which is air pollution in Africa. What exactly is air pollution? Priyavrat Sharma defines air pollution as “the contamination of natural air by mixing up of it with many different contaminating particles including chemicals, harmful fumes etc.”10 Mellissa Manytz holds a similar opinion that air pollution is any contamination of the atmosphere that disturbs the natural composition of the air11. Sources of air pollution are called air pollutants and are gaseous in nature. These pollutants have two subdivisions, the first being the primary pollutants that consist of gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO)12. The second is the secondary pollutant ozone13.
Africa has two extremes: on one end there is urban development and a lot of modernization is attempting to take place, while the other extreme is the rural areas where there are a lot of old traditional practices, and many do not want to be bothered with the responsibility of educating the people. Air pollution in Africa is further categorized into two categories: indoor air pollution and outdoor air pollution.14 Indoor pollution refers to pollution that occurs inside an enclosed environment. As stated earlier, this type of pollution is seen mostly in rural areas. As climate conditions differ from season to season in Africa, the levels at which this pollution occurs in different seasons varies15.
Indoor cooking and heating practices expose people to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. The burning of wood, use of animal dung, agricultural waste and other primitive practices release these gases into the atmosphere as recent studies in Kenya and Gambia have shown.16 Apart from the kitchen duties of the woman, they also engage in agricultural work that involves fuel carrying and childcare. With the incline of these gases in the atmosphere, there is an increased risk of respiratory diseases both in infants and adults.
High levels of emissions from factories that have no restrictions cause outdoor air pollution in Africa17. Not only does industry cause pollution, but power stations, cars especially trucks and lorries also emit high levels of these gaseous pollutants.18 Using Nigeria as a model, emission of these gases into the atmosphere is caused by lorries that are clearly worn out and are in desperate need of repair. These trucks have exhaust pipes that release carbon monoxide at high levels and since there is no regulation or restriction they pose as health hazards. Apart from the health implications, they are also death traps because of their bad conditions and the state of the roads. This makes it unsafe for road users as well.
A recent study on air pollution in Africa has estimated that by 2030 combustion-driven sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides will have increased the world’s emission levels by 20 to 30 percent.19 A mind-boggling fact is that there is not enough funding to gather sufficient data for pollution in this part of the world, so the estimates are not certain. West Africa’s air pollution has begun to gain attention especially in large countries like Nigeria, which has major cities such as Lagos that undergo urbanization at a constant rate. In cities like Lagos, air pollution is a result of the constant running of generators because of the lack of power supply in the nation20. People have become so accustomed to living in these conditions that they don’t even notice anymore how polluted the atmosphere really is. It is appalling how many deaths it has caused. Take for example someone sleeping near a
generator house inhaling all the carbon monoxide emitted, which then mixes with the blood and causes death. About 94% of Nigeria’s population is exposed to levels of pollution that exceed what the World Health Organization considers as safe.21 Gaborone in Botswana was also the seventh most polluted city in the world in 2013 according to WHO’s data.22
Outdoor air pollution is detrimental to human health. Some of the diseases experienced include: stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.23 Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid organic and inorganic matter all suspended in air. It is composed of sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.24 Particulate matter is a major contributor to these diseases and it affects us more than we think it does. So far research has shown that there is a correlation between high levels of particulate matter and morbidity rate. If these levels were reduced then there would be lower morbidity. The WHO estimates that a reduction from PM10 with concentration levels of 70 / 3 to 20 / 3 would reduce air polluted related diseases by approximately 15%.25 We are battling with particulate matter as a potential source of these disease. Sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide gases are also combined with these particulate matters26. The ozone at the ground level is a large contributor to photochemical smog. It is formed by the reaction of sunlight with pollutants such as Nitrogen oxides, which are released from vehicles and factories. Increased ozone in the air causes lung diseases.
Nitrogen dioxide, a rotten smelling gas, is formed from combustion processes such as heating, fossil fuels, coal, power generation, and engines in vehicles and ships and food processing.27 Short term concentrations of this gas could cause inflammation of the airways, while long term exposure could potentially lead to asthma in children, reduced lung functions and bronchitis28.
Sulfur dioxide is a highly reactive gas that is emitted from combustion, extraction of metals from ores and burning of high sulfur.29 The highest concentration of sulfur dioxide is in fossil fuel combustion of power plants and other industrial processes. Research has shown that short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide, which could be between five minutes and twenty-four hours, could cause an individual to experience respiratory diseases such as bronchoconstriction and asthma30. Sulfur dioxide could also react with other compounds in the environment and form small particles. These particles then get into the body and may cause even worse diseases that are by far more life threatening.31
Indoor air pollution also emits similar gases as a result of smoke from the burning of wood, cook stoves, and open fire stoves, and triggers tuberculosis32. Mainly women and children suffer pollution’s repercussions, as earlier stated. Approximately 1.6 million deaths have been recorded from women and children breathing high levels of indoor smoke in Africa.33
Preventive and Curative Measures…
It is important to cure this disease which we have inflicted upon our planet earth, but even more important that we take preventive measures so that the problem does not get worse.
To reduce emission levels, the use of air pollution equipment can be employed. This equipment cleans dirty air just before it goes out into the environment.34 Some common examples of these control equipment are adsorbers, cyclones and vapor condensers to mention a few.35 In general they are cost efficient and also succeed in the job for which they have been employed to. A company called “Air Liquide” has provided air pollution control and treatment.36 They provide advanced technology using knowledge obtained from combustion, heat transfer and cryogenics.37 These technologies reduce green house gas emissions. Oxy combustion solutions is a technology they have come up with that has the capacity to reduce fume volumes and emission levels. These oxycombustion solutions remove nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from the atmosphere38. Another way to control these emissions is by placing permits to regulate the concentration of these gases that enter the atmosphere in levels that are not harmful. These are helpful because they place requirements on how things are done.
So far South Africa is the only country in Africa that has enforced air quality legislation. The air quality act (act 39 of 2004) functions include: national air quality framework, listing of pollutants, setting emission standards and a providing a range of criminal offences.39 A workshop held in July called the “Better Air Quality” was a sub-regional workshop to make policies regarding better environmental practices.40 The BAQ brought together West and Central Africa Sub regions The BAQ initiative is supported by the Air Pollution Information Network for Africa (APINA), Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), ARA, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the Swedish International Development Co- operation Agency (Sida), the Global Atmospheric Pollution Forum (GAPF), UNEP through the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), and the World Bank.41 The regional framework agreement on air pollution has been able to bring together twenty-one countries in west and central Africa. These countries are Côte d’Ivoire, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
The framework is aimed at addressing key areas that are affecting air pollution in the continent. Their main areas of focus are transport, mining, household pollution, bush burning and uncontrolled deforestation. This paper includes projection plans for when the organization should implement laws to engender significant change in the various sectors that contribute to air pollution. An example would be to “enact regulations to adopt AFRI-2 (3500 ppm max sulphur in diesel and 500ppm in gasoline) or better fuel specifications by the end of 2010 and implement AFRI-4 (50 ppm max sulphur in diesel and 150ppm in gasoline) by 2020.” This is an example of the projection made in regards to fuel standards. They also aim at increasing awareness among the people so that there would be less air pollutants emitted and people would make a more conscious effort to regulate or completely stop the use of these materials.
The only issue I see about the proposed measures is that to stop air pollution there are so many great ideas that could easily be worked with but it doesn’t seem like there is a section describing how to implement those ideas. The framework is also excessively long and although put in organized format, does not show focus. Consider this sentence: “create efficient linkages between non-motorized transport, public transport and individual
motorized transport to improve efficiency of urban mobility.” This proposal does not specify what kind of “linkages” they intend to create or when this urban mobility will be developed. Another example would be to “channel more investments in the development of sustainable urban transport infrastructure including road and rail systems.” The framework says that it was going to do something about the railroad system, yet Nigeria is a West African country and has been a part of this framework since 2009 and there has been no transformation in the transportation system. The rails have been out of commission since the 1970s and the sector in charge of transportation still collects revenue for development of that sector of the economy, but so far nothing has been done to change it. I know it takes time for some of these things to be implemented, but fulfilling a few out these hundreds of promises would reduce apathy among the people.
Air pollution is a major issue and I don’t know how much awareness may really bring about change, so the more realistic solution would be to move everyone, divide each continent, and assign each to a new planet. Since Canada is really cold and its inhabitants are used to the cold, it would make sense that they stay farthest away from the sun, so Pluto would suffice. This way everyone would be given a second chance to make right their atrocious acts of polluting the once perfect earth. Vacating earth for a while would give it time to recuperate from all the damage done to it and maybe after a million years we can consider returning back.
A potential solution for pollution in Africa would be to try to create awareness especially among people in the rural areas so that they become more conscious of a lot of primitive practices that cost them their lives. I don’t think it is enough to simply raise awareness because for people living in poverty there is not much you can tell them to make them go out of their way and buy fuel efficient stoves for cooking. The truth is that they do not have money for that and the little they have is invested in food for their immediate family. It would make better sense for the government to provide some of these facilities to the less privileged because at this point what they really is a savior. The popular saying that “actions speaks louder than words” fits with this scenario because asking them to take positive steps towards the environment would entail you showing that you genuinely care about them.
Lots of air pollution is caused by power generators and solving the problem of power supply would be a huge relief. So much money goes into buying diesel and fuel for people to power these plants just so they can have electricity. If electricity issues were resolved by going green then pollution would be significantly less and people would likely be happier. Going green means using sources of electricity that do not have negative effects on the environment43. The sun, air, water and wind can be used to harness electricity without having a negative effect on the environment.
As stated earlier, Africa is such a blessed continent with a lot of natural resources, many that have not even been unearthed. So if poverty levels are reduced, then pollution would be reduced as well. Pollution and poverty may not directly correlate, but poverty causes people to resort to using pollutants and appliances that emit them in high concentrations.
If some of this basic infrastructure is provided then I reckon there would be less pollution. Industries contribute a great deal to atmospheric pollution and there are no restrictions on pollutant levels. Once those rules are enforced and strictly adhered to, there wouldn’t be much of a problem trying to bring down levels of pollution.
Education is also a potential solution. The more people go to school, the more people become appreciative of their surrounding environment. The public education system should be reformed back to way the way it used to be way before private schools came into play. If the public education system is reformed then there would be equal opportunity for education both for the poor and the affluent and higher literacy rates.
The Bigger Picture… Public Health and the Field of Medicine
What exactly is public health? Public health refers to all measures taken to prevent diseases and prolong life among populations, not just individuals.44 Public health keeps a constant follow up on the health of communities and promotes practices to ensure that the population remains healthy. A physician on the other hand treats patients individually.
So how does this goal play a role in helping to improve the quality of air and the state of health of the people currently experiencing air pollution or enduring its implications? A background in public health would give me a good understanding of how to prevent and control the spread of diseases in a community. It would further help me to understand how to relate with a large group of people and communicate with them in a way that would be of great benefit. As a physician trained in the art of healing, I would be able to offer treatment to people affected. For the state of public health to be improved these solutions to air pollution in Africa in need to be implemented before it becomes an irreversible problem.