ABOUT 94 percent of children in Africa live in areas with no reliable means of measuring air quality, according to a new UNICEF report released on 2019 World Environment Day.
The report titled “Silent Suffocation in Africa” measures the population of children living near reliable ground-level air quality monitoring stations. It notes that air pollution is a growing challenge in the continent, affecting the poorest children the most.
Only six percent of these African children live in areas where air pollution is reliably measured at ground-level that provide real-time data on the quality of air they are breathing. But in Europe and North America, 72 percent of children live where air pollution is fully measured, 43 percent in Asia and 25 percent in South America.
Since air pollution is not monitored in Africa to the same extent as other parts of the world, UNICEF notes that African countries are not only potentially underestimating the severity of the impact but might also be underestimating its scope.
According to the State of global air report published by the Health Effects Institute in August 2018, Nigeria is among the countries with deadly air quality. This is as a result of the environmental hazards combined with extreme pollution sources like crop burning generator and vehicle fumes.
And a World Health Organisation report of 2016 noted that Onitsha, Kaduna, Aba, Umuahia were among four of the 20 African cities with the worst air quality in the world.
Air pollution is a major killer of children. For babies and young children, breathing particulate air pollution is extremely harmful to their health and development. As this can cause permanent damage to brain tissue and lungs.
The UNICEF report analysed that deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased 57 percent over 27 years, from 164,000 in 1990 to 258,000 in 2017. A recent study that was included in the report estimates the economic cost of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution across Africa to be $215bn
“without ground-level monitoring stations that reliably measure air quality, Africa’s children are increasingly at risk of unwittingly breathing air that is toxic for their health and brain development, and the ability to devise effective responses is greatly compromised,” the report read partly.
For instance, it said that “ultrafine pollution particles can enter the bloodstream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuro-inflammation.”
Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children’s learning and development.
“Air pollution is a silent killer of children. And in Africa especially, we know the problem is severe, we just don’t know how severe,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
“Reducing children’s exposure to pollutants – and therefore reducing the damage to children’s health and early brain development – begins with a reliable understanding of the quality of air they are breathing in the first place.”
Apart from human being dying, air pollution also impacts ecosystems that are vital to livelihoods and health, as well as food crops.
UNICEF urges African governments, including Nigeria, to put in place permanent and high-quality ground-level monitoring stations as public goods. When combined with satellite imagery, such stations would form the backbone of a system that would help improve the reliability of less precise monitoring stations that capture variations across cities”.
It includes that reliable ground level data helps to better capture the daily or hourly fluctuations in air quality. “Monitoring also helps to identify sources of pollution, shaping public health policy, and informing action and interventions that target the most affected,” UNICEF notes.
The Agency also tasked the governments to invest in renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion and provide affordable access to public transport. It also calls more green spaces in urban areas and creates better waste management options to prevent the open burning of harmful chemicals.
To prevent children’s exposure to air pollution, the report identifies that countries should plan the urban cities to make sure major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals.
“If toxic air is stunting our children’s development, it is stunting our societies’ development as well. All governments should take the necessary steps to make sure we know exactly what we are putting into the air and what it is doing to our children’s health and well-being,” said Fore.