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Air Pollution Second Largest Cause of Death in Africa

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Monday, October 18th, 2021
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Air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths across Africa in 2019, a new study shows. Most of these deaths — 697,000 — were as a result of household air pollution driven largely by indoor cooking stoves.

But while household air pollution is the predominant form of pollution, it is declining, whereas outdoor or ambient air pollution is increasing, signalling a looming problem, said Boston College professor of Biology Philip Landrigan, who led the project with United Nations Environment Programme Chief Environmental Economist Pushpam Kumar.

According to the report, air pollution is the second largest cause of death in Africa. It is a major threat to health, human capital, and economic development, and was responsible for 16·3 per cent of all deaths.

Outdoor air pollution resulting from sources like exhaust smoke and pollutants emitted by industries claimed 394,000 lives on the continent.

Air pollution is responsible for more deaths than tobacco, alcohol, road accidents, and drug abuse. Only HIV/Aids causes more deaths.

But besides the loss to life, air pollution from smog-inducing ozone and fine particles may be siphoning billions of dollars off the continent’s economy each year.

Thanks to sustained interventions by governments, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies, disease and deaths from household air pollution across Africa are now declining, albeit slowly and unevenly. Polluting fuels such as charcoal and kerosene are still prevalent.

Deaths attributable to air pollution result from lower respiratory infections stand at 336,460 deaths, ischemic heart disease — related to a blockage in the arteries — (223,930), neonatal disorders (186,541), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (70,479), and stroke (193,936).

The report also associates air pollution to the far-reaching effects of diminishing intellectual development of Africa’s children.

According to the research, economic output lost to air pollution-related disease wiped about $3 billion off of Ethiopia’s economy, that is 1.16 per cent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product; $349 million was lost from the Rwandan economy (1.19 per cent of GDP) and $1.6 billion in Ghana (0.95 per cent of GDP).

In the first continent-wide examination of the far-reaching impacts of this pollution, the assessment aimed to quantify how air pollution is affecting health, human capital, and economies, but with a particular focus on three rapidly developing sub-Saharan countries: Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana.

The report — International Day of Clean Air for blue skies — published on October 7 in the latest edition of the journal The Lancet Planetary Health, indicates that patterns of air pollution-related disease and death vary across Africa. The highest rates are seen in countries with the lowest social development indices.

An upward trend in ambient air pollution-related mortality is evident in Ghana, the most economically advanced of the three countries we examined in detail, and is beginning to emerge in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Differences in air pollution-related disease and death are seen by gender, with 43 per cent of ambient (outdoor) air pollution-related deaths and 47 per cent of household air pollution-related deaths occurring in women.

In the three countries that are the focus of this analysis, household air pollution exposures are greatest in Ethiopia and Rwanda, where an estimated 98 per cent of households burn solid fuels for cooking and heating.

“The most disturbing finding was the increase in deaths from ambient air pollution,” said Landrigan

“While this 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.”

And the problem could get even worse with burgeoning population numbers on the continent.

With Africa’s population on track to more than triple in this century, from 1.3 billion in 2020 to 4.3 billion by 2100, cities are expanding, economies are growing, and life expectancy has almost doubled, note the researchers. Which they say could be problematic.

Already, fossil fuel combustion has driven an increase in outdoor air pollution that in 2019 killed 29.15 people per 100,000 population, an increase from 26.13 deaths per 100,000 in 1990, according to the report.

The report warns air pollution will increase morbidity and mortality, diminish economic productivity, impair human capital formation, and undercut development if no intervention is made.

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