Tema Residents Battle For Clean Air In One Of The Most Polluted Cities In Ghana

Richard Acquah’s job was just supposed to give him an income. But it’s left him with a life-long burden. At 55 Acquah’s lungs are damaged from long exposure to dust, factory smoke and vehicular fumes from his lifetime profession as a taxi cab driver at Tema Community One taxi station. Doctors have advised him to change jobs if he wants to live.

TEMA STATION, Accra – Driving taxis is the only profession Richard Acquah has ever known. At 55, he’s been driving for almost ten years and had planned to drive as long as he could. But in the last few years his health condition has worsened. He has been diagnosed with early-stage Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which has led to difficulty in breathing, coughing and wheezing. His doctors tell him his profession is killing him. As bad as things are, he says he has no choice but to keep going.

“There is nothing else I can do to support my family, so I have to continue to work despite the warning,” he says. He is resorting to the only protection he has. “My stop gap measure now is wearing a nose mask to protect myself.”

Richard is just one of many drivers and residents in Tema taking in a large dose of air pollutants – a dealy mixture mostly of industrial and vehicular emissions and dust – that is likely sickening them.

Tema is one of the busiest cities in Ghana thanks to the port and the many businesses and factories here. It houses major companies including Ferro Fabrik, VALCO, Tema Oil Refinery (TOR), Sentuo Ceramics and Sentuo Steel. That makes it a hotspot for air pollution according to experts.

The most dangerous air pollutants here are regularly double the annual air quality guideline value recommended by the World Health Organization. Sensitive groups are advised to reduce outdoor exercise, close windows to keep out dirty air and where a mask outdoors.

Breathing clean air has been globally declared a universal human right by the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution was approved by 161 countries including Ghana. Still, breathing clean air in some parts of Ghana is a near impossibility.

Most residents of Tema Industrial Area and its environs have become accustomed to breathing dust, industrial fumes, and stench of industrial waste. This situation has sent many residents to hospitals and threatened the livelihoods of others.

Dr Kusi Appiah, a pathologist at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, says exposure to industrial fumes – which contain high levels of noxious gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide – leads to short and long-term effects on the body.

“When a person is exposed to industrial fumes containing these substances, it can affect the person’s lungs both in the short and long term,” says Dr Appiah. “The person can get acute lung diseases and it can affect the person’s body immunity. With chronic exposure to these substances, it can cause cancer and inflammation. Frequent exposure to noxious gases can block lungs and cause difficulty in breathing.”

Air pollution has been linked to a range of illnesses that are growing in the country including asthma, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and even infertility, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

A food vendor named Emilia, who does not want her full name disclosed for fear of retaliation, says almost all the factories in the area release black or grey smoke into the atmosphere. She is situated between TOR, Ferro Fabrik and two other factories in the Free Zone area of Tema.

Emilia says vendors in the area, and their customers, breathe in the smoke daily. On top of that they are exposed to dust from unsealed roads.

“When they open their chimneys and release the smoke, we find it difficult to breathe,” she says. “But we can’t complain because they won’t even listen to us.”

Amoah Lawrence, a lotto agent stationed about 100 meters away from Ferro Fabrik, accuses the company of using short chimneys that release polluted air closer to the ground. He complains that the situation is risky for the health of marketers in the streets around the factory. He also worries for the workers.

“Sometimes if you are here in the morning you will see a lot of carbon just flowing around. This is very bad for human health,” says Lawrence. “Sometimes I cry for their workers because the situation is very bad for someone to even work there.”

Christian Igwe, sells shoes on the harbour roadside near Tema Community One station. “A lot of cars pass here,” Igwe says. “Most of which are trailers and release much smoke. Every minute they pass I bear the pain of their smoke. Most times I cover my nose till the smoke passes.”

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution leads to at least 28,000 premature deaths in Ghana each year. Experts believe the real number is much worse. Air pollution is responsible for an estimated seven million premature deaths across the world, more than the deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Accra is Africa’s fastest growing city meaning the problem is only going to get worse.

“The impact of air pollution on people’s health, vulnerable communities and the general economy are areas we need to focus attention to develop policies that will help to address these challenges,” says Desmond Appiah, Country Lead for the Clean Air Fund, a UK-based charity spearheading efforts to control Ghana’s air pollution.                        

He says air pollution costs Ghana’s economy 4.2% annually translating to about $2.5 billion. Appiah adds that Ghana’s air pollution is five to eight times above globally accepted UN air quality standards. He has a wide range of prescriptions that he is calling on government to implement.

“The government needs to improve the transport system and encourage the usage of electronic vehicles,” Appiah says. “We need also to encourage more walking and cycling and institute a Clean Air Day to encourage less air pollution and respect for road and industry regulations. We need to expand the scope of how we are dealing with air pollution and introduce innovative measures. The government should also set up an electronic motorbike charging system to replace the current ‘Okada’ system which is contributing hugely to air pollution in the country.”

Dr Appiah of Korle Bu Teaching Hospital also has a range of demands for government to curb the impact of air pollution from industry.  

“The factories should increase the length of their chimneys such that when they release gases the ordinary person is less exposed to them,” Dr Appiah says. “The factories should be stationed far from residential areas. We should also encourage more tree planting around the factories so they can quickly absorb the gases when they are released into the atmosphere.”  

The Environment Protection Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Experts say there are things people can do to reduce their exposure to air pollutants. Dr Appiah, advises people to reduce their exposure to pollutants by wearing masks in highly polluted areas and avoiding going there when unnecessary.

For residents of Tema, the cry is one: they say they want government to enforce laws on companies within the area to ensure they adhere to the right environmental safety precautions. And they want government to upgrade and improve the road network in the area to reduce dust discharges from unpaved roads. Until then they say they must continue to struggle with toxic air that is slowly poisoning them.

This story is a collaboration between Peace fm and New Narratives as part of the Clean Air Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.