Africa has an air pollution problem – but lacks the data to tackle it

Another smoggy day in Abidjan. Image: Getty.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched BreatheLife, a campaign to make people more aware about the fact that air pollution – which it calls the invisible killer – is a major health and climate risk.

“Invisible” may refer to the lack of awareness that air pollution is a major health risk. In fact, air pollution levels exceeding the WHO air quality guidelines are often very visible, particularly in developing countries. This is especially true for billions of people living in close contact with air pollution sources. Those who, for example, cook on inefficient stoves with fuels such as coal. Or live in an industrial area.

The WHO has air quality programmes for most of the world’s regions. These review the effects of air pollution on health and help countries develop sustainable air quality policies. But none exists for sub-Saharan Africa. It is not clear why. A possible explanation may be that environmental health risk factors are overshadowed by other risks like malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Despite this, we do know something about the continent’s air pollution levels. In the first major attempt to estimate the health and economic costs of air pollution in Africa, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report found that air pollution in Africa already causes more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition. It warned that this could develop into a health and climate crisis.

But how bad are air pollution levels in Africa? Which countries have the worst air pollution levels? What are the main sources and drivers of air pollution? Are the main sources and drivers of air pollution different from those on other continents?

The answers to these questions are severely hampered by a lack of data as well as poor regulation and laws in African countries. The only country on the continent that has ambient air quality standards enforced by air quality laws and regulations is South Africa. Other countries have either ambient air quality standards or air quality laws and regulations, or none at all.

What’s known

Air pollution is a complex mixture of many components.

The WHO’s air quality guidelines, as well as country-specific laws, have identified a few air pollutant components: particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometer (PM2.5) and 10 micrometer (PM10) in aerodynamic diameter, sulphur dioxide (SO2), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene, lead and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The most dangerous are PM2.5 and ultrafine particles (UFP); the latter are smaller than 100 nanometer in aerodynamic diameter. PM2.5 and UFP penetrate deeper into the lung alveoli and may pass into the bloodstream. PM10 and PM2.5 are important indicators of long-term air quality and of health risks.

Based on data of ground measurements conducted in 2008-2015, Africa’s PM10 levels are not the highest in the world.

The database is the largest of its kind and covers over 3,000 human settlements – mostly cities – in 103 countries. The number one spot belongs to the Eastern Mediterranean region, followed by the South-East Asia region and then Africa. But the WHO acknowledges numerous limitations to the data sources. Fewer sites globally measure PM2.5, hence the focus is on PM10.

The PM2.5 data based on the WHO air quality model show that the number one spot again belongs to the Eastern Mediterranean region, followed by the South-East Asia region and then Africa. Given the lack of PM2.5 ground measurements in Africa, the PM2.5 data derived from the WHO air quality model for Africa should be viewed with caution.


Where is the air worse in Africa?

It is hard to say what the real picture is. The modelled PM2.5 data supplements the data from ground monitoring networks, especially in regions with no or very little monitoring, as is the case in Africa.

The PM10 data, based on ground measurements conducted between 2008 and 2015, show that all African countries with PM10 data exceeded the WHO annual guideline of 20 microgram/cubic meter (µg/m³).

Onitsha in Nigeria had the highest yearly PM10 level of 594 µg/m³ globally, nearly 30 times higher than the WHO annual guideline. But the quality of the data is questionable. The level for Onitsha is based on PM10 data collected only in 2009 and only at one site. The database also does not mention on how many days the 2009 yearly level is based as missing data can lead to a distorted yearly level. The lowest yearly PM10 level was recorded at Midlands in Mauritius (20 µg/m³). But this is based only on 2011 data collected again at only one site without mention of how many days in 2011 were measured.

It is also difficult to know exactly what the contribution of different sources of air pollution are in Africa.

The amount of air pollution in any given location is affected by a combination of local, regional and distant sources. It is also affected by the dispersion of pollutants, which in turn depends on numerous weather conditions such as wind direction, temperature and precipitation.

A recent review indicated that very few studies in Africa conducted source apportionment of PM2.5 and PM10. The review concluded that (based on the few studies) 17 per cent, 10 per cent, 34 per cent, 17 per cent and 22 per cent of PM2.5 levels in Africa are due to traffic, industry, domestic fuel burning, unspecified source of human origin and natural sources - such as dust and sea salt. For PM10 the corresponding source distribution is 34 per cent, 6 per cent, 21 per cent, 14 per cent and 25 per cent, but should be viewed with caution due to the few studies.

Based on the limited number of PM10 and PM2.5 source apportionment studies in Africa, these tentative conclusions can be drawn. Traffic is a major source of PM10 levels in Africa as in many other global regions. The other two major sources of PM10 in Africa are domestic fuel burning and natural sources. In other regions of the world, industry and the ambiguous “unspecified source of human origin” contribute more.

Domestic fuel burning is the major source of PM2.5 in Africa, followed by traffic and natural sources such as dust. In other regions of the world, traffic, industry and the ambiguous “unspecified source of human origin” contribute more to PM2.5 levels.

Air quality interventions

Regardless of the exact global source contributions, the main sources of air pollution should be tackled globally in management plans and interventions.

Obvious interventions include clean energy technology such as solar power, to minimise domestic fuel burning and emissions from coal-fired power plants. Other initiatives include clean public transport, bicycle lanes to cut traffic emissions, recycling and controls on industrial emissions.

Air pollution does not stop at country or continental borders. It is a major risk factor for climate change. A disregard for air pollution levels in Africa may have a major impact on global climate change in the years to come.The Conversation

Janine Wichmann is associate professor at the University of Pretoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What is Europe? We’ve been arguing about it for 400 years

Well, it's here somewhere. Image: Google.

It is tempting to regard the history of Europe as a tale of gradually closer union, an evolution now imperilled by the forces of nationalistic populism that have brought Brexit and the growth of far-right political parties across the continent. In reality, the story is not such a neat one – and the meaning of Europe has always been up for debate. The Conversation

Take the 16th century as an example. Back then, Europe as an idea and a marker of identity was becoming more prominent; so much so that, by 1623, English philosopher Francis Bacon could refer to “we Europeans” and the continent was depicted as a queen.

Europe As A Queen, 1570. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The cultural movement of the Renaissance sparked an enthusiasm for all things classical – including the word “Europe”, which may have derived from the Greek name for the goddess Europa. At the same time, the voyages of discovery following Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas in 1492 led to a greater knowledge about the world at large. With this came a corresponding deepening of the sense of “us” versus “them”, of what supposedly made Europe and Europeans different.

This identification with people from across the continent had also been spurred by the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Reformation and subsequent breakup of the church weakened the idea of Christianity as a unifying badge of identity, and so Europe was able to articulate this growing collective sentiment.

A little used word

Yet some of the major thinkers of the period rarely used the word “Europe”. The term appeared only ten times in the works of writer William Shakespeare, where it was used not with any specific geographical meaning but for rhetorical exaggeration. In the play Henry V the Constable of France assures the Duke of Orleans that his horse “is the best horse of Europe”. And in Henry VI, Part 1 the Duke of Bedford promises that his soldiers’ “bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake”.

It is telling that three of Shakespeare’s ten utterances belong to that master of comic overstatement, Falstaff. In Henry VI, Part II he says: “An I had but a belly of any indifference, I were simply the most active fellow in Europe.” These are not the stirrings of a sense of cultural unity, of Europe as a great civilisation. The word “Europe” as Shakespeare used it is empty of meaning beyond that of a vast expanse.

The French writer Michel de Montaigne. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The term popped up even less in the writing of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne – just once in the 107 chapters that make up his Essays. Montaigne used the word as a geographical marker: recalling the myth of Atlantis, he wrote of the kings of that island extending their “dominion as far into Europe as Tuscany”. Curiously, this sole instance of the term Europe appeared in an essay about the New World, On Cannibals, in which Montaigne wrote about the customs of the Tupinambà people of Brazil. Although he contrasted them with what he calls “us”, he did not use the word Europe in these comparisons.


A contested concept

But his contemporaries do. André Thevet, a Franciscan friar who had also journeyed to South America, wrote enthusiastically of the Spanish conquest of the New World: “You will find there towns, castles, cities, villages, houses, bishoprics, states, and all other ways of living that you think it was another Europe”. Thevet championed the superiority of what he called “our Europe”.

Montaigne was much more sceptical: “We may call these people barbarous in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.” Where Thevet regarded Europe as a cultural model to be exported, Montaigne condemned empire building in the New World. Montaigne articulated a sense of affinity with the Spanish and Portuguese by referring to “we”, “us” and “ourselves”, but – though like Thevet he could have done – he did not name this community Europe.

Some people continued to prefer the label “Christendom” to articulate a collective identity. But others were not wedded to such overarching notions of belonging. Jean de Léry, a Calvinist pastor who had travelled to Brazil, did not use the word “Christendom” and used “Europe” sparingly in a geographical, not a cultural, sense. Léry had suffered at the hands of Catholics during the French Wars of Religion and felt no affinity with them. His allegiances were much smaller – to Calvinism and to France.

Just like today, in the 16th century the meaning of Europe was not straightforward. It was contested between those who used the word as something more than a geographical area and those who did not – between those who saw the continent as a cultural idea of unity and those whose sense of community and belonging was much smaller.

Niall Oddy is a PhD candidate at Durham University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.