Air pollution takes millions of lives in countries with the worst levels of it such as China and India. Yet in Africa too, polluted air is an increasingly major health hazard, which killed as many 1.1 million people in 2019 alone, scientists say.
Air pollution in Africa frequently comes in the form of the indoor variety from cooking stoves, which accounted for an estimated 700,000 deaths while outdoor air pollution claimed another 400,000 lives, according to scientists at Boston College and the United Nations’ Environment Programme.
“Household air pollution is the predominant form of air pollution, but it is declining, whereas ambient air pollution is increasing,” explain the scientists in a paper published in The Lancet medical journal.
In addition to the lives lost, air pollution costs African countries billions of dollars in gross domestic product. Economic output lost to air-pollution-related diseases was $3 billion in Ethiopia, or 1.16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product; $1.6 billion in Ghana (0.95 percent of GDP), and $349 million in Rwanda (1.19 percent of GDP), the scientists found.
“The most disturbing finding was the increase in deaths from ambient air pollution,” said Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, a leader of the research team which assessed how air pollution was affecting people’s health and countries’ economies across Africa with a focus on Ethiopia, Ghana and Rwanda.
Air pollution in Africa is bad as it is, but worse is to come, the scientists warn.
“While this [current] increase is still modest, it threatens to increase exponentially as African cities grow in the next two to three decades and the continent develops economically,” Landrigan said.
Within this century Africa’s population is set to triple from 1.3 billion people in 2020 to 4.3 billion by 2100. In tandem with the continent’s ever-increasing population, urban areas are growing and so are levels of air pollution driven by the burning of fossil fuels. At the same time, pollutive indoor cooking practices in badly ventilated abodes remain commonplace.
“Indoor and outdoor sources combine to make air pollution the second largest cause of death in Africa, claiming more lives than tobacco, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, and drug abuse. Only AIDS causes more deaths. Africa is part of a global toll taken by air pollution, which killed an estimated 6.7 million people worldwide in 2017,” the scientists explain.
Alarmingly, exposure to air pollution also stuns the intellectual development of many of the continent’s children, which could have grave repercussions for their mental health.
Because of the toll air pollution takes in various ways, there is a need for increased investment in pollution controls across Africa, the experts say. Measures should include investing in clean renewable energy; reducing road traffic and traffic-related pollution through measures such as creating vehicle-free zones; and regulating agricultural burning as well as the open burning of waste by households.
“We encourage Africa’s leaders to take advantage of the fact that their countries are still relatively early in their economic development and to transition rapidly to wind and solar energy, thus avoiding entrapment in fossil-fuel-based economies,” Landrigan said.
“African countries are in a unique position to leapfrog over mistakes made elsewhere and to achieve prosperity without pollution,” he explained. “Air pollution in Africa threatens economic development and future growth, but can be avoided by wise leaders who transition rapidly to wind and solar energy and avoid entrapment by coal, gas and oil.”
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