Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change
ANALYSIS | THE INDEPENDENT | The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued new Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) for countries that are adjusted downwards and WHO warns that exceeding them could lead to significant risks to health. At the same time, however, adhering to them could protect the health of populations and save millions of lives.
The WHO says there is clear evidence of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood. The latest guidelines also support recent research that found air pollution is most likely a contributing factor to health burden caused by Covid-19.
The guidelines recommend new air quality levels to protect the health of populations, by reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change.
Dorota Jarosińska, the WHO technical lead, who helped develop the new global guidelines, called the new update a “triple-win scenario,” as it not only protects public health and improves air quality, but also mitigates the climate crisis.
“These guidelines reinforce the need for urgent action that would benefit the health of all, including vulnerable populations,” Jarosińska told CNN. “This creates a triple-win scenario for the benefit of air quality, climate action and health, and is one of the elements postulated by WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from Covid-19.”
In 2019, more than 90% of the global population lived in areas where concentrations exceeded the 2005 WHO air quality guideline for long term exposure to PM2.5. Countries with strong policy-driven improvements in air quality have often seen marked reduction in air pollution, whereas declines over the past 30 years were less noticeable in regions with already good air quality.
Uganda under pressure
The new WHO guidelines add to increasing pressure on Uganda to take measures to improve air quality; especially in cities and towns.
According to the 2020 ranking by IQAir; a Swiss air quality technology company, founded in 1963 to develop air quality monitoring and air cleaning expertise and protection against airborne pollutants, Uganda is named among the top 30 most air polluted countries in the world; together with Mali and Ghana, on the African continent.
Kampala is also ranked number 05 among top ten most air polluted cities in Africa, with average annual pollution 26.1.
The worst city is the Malian capital Bamako at 37.9. Most air polluted cities are in South Africa, led by Sebokeng at 29.5. January, June, July and August are some of the worst months for air pollution in Kampala hitting highs of 36.9.
Previously, the Air Quality Index scale as defined by the Unites States of America Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 standards indicated that readings below 50(𝜇g/m3) showed that the air quality is good with little or no health risk. An air quality gauge between 101 and 150(𝜇g/m3) was deemed dangerous for people with respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is the tiniest pollutant yet also among the most dangerous. When inhaled, it travels deep into lung tissue where it can enter the bloodstream and can contribute to asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses — all underlying conditions that make people vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid-19.
PM is primarily generated by fuel combustion in different sectors, including transport, energy, households, industry, and from agriculture.
The new guidelines, which had not been updated in 15 years, recommend the concentration of this harmful substance be halved in the world’s air, from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5.
Air pollution in Kampala has been blamed on mostly dust from unpaved roads, fumes from cars and open burning of waste.
Kampala is Uganda’s political capital and financial district contributing to over 30% of Uganda’s GDP. Up to 70% of the city’s roads are unpaved and dusty. The city also hosts more than 32% of the country’s manufacturing facilities. Industrial emissions from activities such as metal processing, furniture, textiles and plastics contribute a significant amount of pollution to the air.
Engineer Bainomugisha, a researcher who worked with other scientists at Makerere University to develop a machine that monitors air quality, said in an earlier interview that air pollution Kampala is worsened because most cars are pre-owned and old.
“These vehicles have a faster rate of wear and tear leading to a higher environmental footprint,” he said.
A 2020 study by scientists from the University of Birmingham, UK, estimated that particulate matter (PM) pollution levels in Nairobi, Kampala, and Addis Ababa have increased by 182%, 162% and 62% respectively since the 1970s.
Since the cities in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya do not have well-developed air quality monitoring infrastructure, the scientists used visibility data for capital cities in as a substitute measurement.
They discovered a significant reduction in visibility since the 1970s, where Nairobi shows the greatest loss (60%), compared to Kampala (56%) and Addis Ababa (34%) – due to increased PM emissions from vehicles and energy generation.
The scientists found that visibility was lowest during the dry months and highest in wet months. At all study sites, visibility was higher on Sundays – due to reduced traffic and industrial emissions.
Report co-author Dr. Ajit Singh said: “Evidence indicates that ambient air quality in urban African locations is often poor, because of high rates of urbanisation and population growth leading to large-scale construction, increased energy use, vehicle emissions and industrialisation”.
The Uganda National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) estimates that about 140,000 litres of fuel are burnt by idling cars in traffic jams every day in Kampala. The many small scale industries add to the high levels of carbon.
Since 2018, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) has been working with Makerere University Software Development Centre and the School of Public Health of Makerere University to develop tools and monitor air quality around the city. The efforts are financed under the Kampala Climate Change project supported by the European Union.
The Government of the United States supported KCCA to set up an air quality management program by building the technical human resource capacity. Air quality monitoring teams have been trained in air pollution data visualisation, application, and mitigation measures.
Mitigation interventions proposed to improve air quality in the City include driving less, encouraging walking and proper disposal of garbage instead of open burning.