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Air pollution caused one million deaths in Africa in 2019

According to a new report by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), nearly the entire African continent faces the most severe health impacts in the world caused by air pollution. The experts found that Africa is home to five of the top ten most polluted countries in the world in terms of outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is the most consistent predictor of deaths from respiratory, cardiovascular, and other diseases in previous studies of long-term exposure to air pollution. Moreover, widespread exposure to household air pollution (HAP) – which results from burning solid fuels such as coal, wood, or charcoal for cooking – also has a significant impact on African mortality, causing 63 percent of the 1.1 million pollution-related deaths in 2019.

Since across East, West, Central, and Southern Africa, about 75 percent of the population relies on solid fuels for cooking, residents are exposed to high concentrations of harmful pollutants at home every day. In these regions, newborns and infants are at a particularly high risk from HAP, with 14 percent of all deaths in children under five linked to exposure to such hazardous pollutants. Moreover, children’s exposure to HAP – as well as to outdoor pollution – has long-term consequences for their health, including lung development problems and increased susceptibility to infectious respiratory diseases.

“This report gives evidence of the substantial threat air pollution poses to the health, and even life, of babies and children under the age of five. This vulnerable group needs special attention to mitigate their exposures, for example, through policy and intensive awareness campaigns with practical solutions for mothers and caregivers,” said Caradee Wright, a Chief Specialist Scientist at the South African Medical Research Council.  

According to the report authors, air pollution sources and their health impact can vary widely across the continent. For instance, Western Africa experiences the highest PM2.5 pollution – with an average concentration of 64.1 μg/m3 – while Southern Africa has the lowest, at 26.5 μg/m3. Although most of this pollution comes from similar sources as elsewhere in the world – such as fossil fuel use for energy production, industrial and semi-industrial activities, or transportation – in parts of Africa, windblown dust (a natural source of air pollution) is also a major contributor to increased PM2.5 levels.

Fortunately, countries across Africa are currently implementing a wide range of programs to lower the impacts of air pollution, such as establishing national air quality policies, providing access to clean fuels for cooking, and transitioning to clean energy sources. 

 “Air pollution greatly contributes to the rising frequency of chronic noncommunicable diseases in Africa, putting further strain on a health system already stretched by chronic infectious diseases and, more recently, Covid-19. These findings call for the African Union and member states to promote, plan, and fund air quality interventions to prevent unnecessary disabilities and deaths throughout the continent,” concluded Patrick de Marie Katoto, an expert in Public Health at the Catholic University of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The State of the Air Quality and Health Impacts in Africa report can be found here.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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