Air pollution causing major health burden, but given little attention  

Diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution including heart disease, stroke, asthma, lung cancer and dementia are increasingly straining health systems, says a Former World Health Organization (WHO) official. 

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, a  Former Chief Scientist at WHO, in her foreword captured in the State of Global Air Quality Fund 2023, a Clean Air Fund latest report said breathing dirt air by people was also eating up scarce health budgets of developing countries like Ghana.  

She noted over 99 per cent of people around the world are breathing air that exceeds the WHO air quality guidelines, and air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year including more than half a million children under five. 

Dr Swaminathan stated the worst impacts of air pollution were being felt by the poorest communities, as many of the social and environmental determinants of health affect them negatively, and they were least able to access preventive and curative health services. 

She said that the suffering and expense could be avoided if state and non-state actors take proactive steps towards air pollution prevention and clearing the air. “While healthcare workers may be at the sharp end, the responsibility to act falls heavily on policy makers, governments and development funders to enable the action we need,” she said. 

Dr Swaminathan who is also paediatrician and clinical scientist said through the report, the Clean Air Fund had shown that funding to improve outdoor air quality was far too low at just one per cent of total international development funding.  

Professor Kofi Amegah, an Associated Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Cape Coast commenting on the funding gap called on multinational financial institutions to develop a stream of funding solely dedicated for Africa countries for more research and project implementation. “This way it will be a competition between African researchers. I feel there are geopolitical issues involved in awarding these funding,” he noted.  

The other challenge, he said, was the stiff competition from the developing country that had favorable research environments, tools and capacity which appealed to funders thereby rendering applications from Africa that lack the needed environment not attractive. 

Professor Amegah, recommended to researchers in the global north to collaborate with counterparts with the global south to undertake joint research and implement projects to improve the research environment in Africa.

He said although Clean Air Fund, a U.K.-based charity working towards clean air globally for instance, was trying to bridge the gap, noting that, “We need more substantial funding here because air pollution is a big deal here”. Africa is home to many of the world’s fastest-growing urban centres – and a crisis of air pollution faces the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, according to a new Clean Air Fund report released.  

The continent, home to the world’s youngest population, is expected to see its population nearly double by mid-century, reaching 3.9 billion by 2100. Africa’s rapid urbanization is providing an engine for its fast-growing economies, but there is a significant hidden cost: air pollution. 

The study focuses on six major and rapidly expanding African cities—Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yaoundé. Air pollution led to over 56,400 premature deaths across the six cities in 2022, costing a minimum of two billion dollars, the report found. Toxic air claimed an estimated 1.1 million lives across Africa in 2019—surpassing the combined toll of tobacco, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, and unsafe water. 

Road traffic is identified as the largest contributor to PM2.5 air pollution concentrations across the six cities studied, accounting for 30 per cent and 40 per cent of PM2.5 concentrations in Lagos and Accra, respectively. Other culprits include industrial activities, power plants, biomass fuels, and waste mismanagement.

As the cities grow and their populations rise, emissions from these sources are set to skyrocket. More people will require more cars, energy, and fuels, and create more waste, leading to a spike in air pollution. 

If current trends persist, the financial toll of air pollution in Africa’s major cities could surge more than eightfold by 2040, the report found. The cost will also be paid in over one million premature deaths by 2040 – 109,000 of which can be saved by implementing policies to combat air pollution.  


This story is a collaboration between Ghana News Agency and New Narratives. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.