World Health Day: Air pollution puts millions of Nigerians at risk

Millions of Nigerians are at risk of deadly diseases, from cardiovascular to respiratory disorders, as lingering air pollution leaves the air quality in many parts of the country largely at unhealthy levels.

This year’s theme for the World Health Day, celebrated every year on April 7 to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948, is ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ which mandates global attention toward urgent actions for fostering a healthy planet and human life with a focus on societal well-being.

Due to poor compliance with Ambient Air Quality Standards (AAQS) in Nigeria and most other low-middle income countries, many face the highest exposure to these risks than anywhere else in the world.

The latest World Health Organization (WHO) database on ambient air quality which includes recommendations for concentration limits of pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) shows that only three percent of Africa has complied with set guidelines and interim targets for PM.

None in Africa has complied the WHO air quality guidelines and interim targets for NO2, unlike 36 percent in the Americas and 23 percent in the European regions.

In Lagos, for instance, the concentration of particulate matter so far in 2022 has depreciated to a moderate and unhealthy level for sensitive groups of people who may experience the health effects.

Data gleaned from the US Air Quality Index (AQI) shows that PM levels in the state often rose above 50, occasionally hitting above 100.

The index runs from 0 to 500 and the higher the value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. An AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.

AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.

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This implies an uncontrolled rate of pollution could readily predispose residents to fatal health breakdowns.

According to WHO, particulate matter can penetrate deep into the lung and enter the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, stroke and respiratory diseases. The revised guidelines equally note that there is emerging evidence that PM also affects other organs and diseases.

Nitrogen oxide on the other hand originates primarily from anthropogenic fuel combustion and is especially common in urban areas. Exposure to NO2 is associated with respiratory disease including asthma, with symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and difficulty in breathing and more hospital admissions.

A 2020 report by the World Bank on air pollution identified road transport, industrial emissions, and generators as top three sources of particulate matter in Lagos. According to the study, air pollution cost Lagos $2.1 billion in 2018 from illness and premature deaths caused by unhealthy air quality.

Another study released by UNICEF in 2021 shows that Nigeria is home to the highest number of air pollution-related pneumonia deaths of children under-five in the world, and the highest number of household air pollution-related pneumonia deaths among children under-five.

Deaths of Nigerian children under-five due to overall air pollution-related pneumonia were 67,416 in 2019 while deaths of Nigerian children under-five due to household-specific air pollution-related pneumonia were 49,591 during the same year, UNICEF said.

“The climate crisis is a health crisis: the same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in an urgent call for accelerated action by leaders to protect health and mitigate the climate crisis.

“We need transformative solutions to wean the world off its addiction to fossil fuels, to reimagine economies and societies focused on well-being, and to safeguard the health of the planet on which human health depends.”

The global health body recommends that governments implement national air quality standards according to the latest Guidelines, monitor air quality and identify sources of air pollution.

It also called for the support of the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy for cooking, heating and lighting.