Air pollution – Enemy of children, elderly and the vulnerable

In Ghana, a growing menace lurks in the air, imperilling the most susceptible members of the population—children and the elderly. This silent and invisible adversary, air pollution, has raised alarms among health experts who urge both the government and citizens to take immediate action.

Accra, a bustling hub in West Africa and one of the continent’s fastest-growing cities, constantly buzzes with life. Yet, this very vitality exposes its inhabitants to a danger they might not see. According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution ranks as the second most significant health threat in Ghana.

While factories and waste burning contribute to this issue, the ageing fleet of trotros and other modes of transportation stands as the most substantial contributor. These vehicles emit minuscule particles that, over time, infiltrate the bloodstream with potentially lethal consequences.

Reuben Alexander Otu, an accountant at the University of Ghana Medical School, knows the perils of air pollution firsthand. Diagnosed with asthma as a child, he describes the challenges of living with the condition: “It’s not easy. It’s a difficult moment, especially something that relates to your breath. You can’t breathe as you do so often. It’s challenging breathing, especially at night when you’re asleep.”

Otu’s story isn’t unique. His mother, who battled asthma for years, eventually succumbed to it. Now, as an adult, he is one of many Ghanaians grappling with respiratory illnesses and various ailments, including heart conditions, that experts say are exacerbated by toxic air.

Dr Carl Osei, the Program Manager of the Occupational and Environmental Health Unit at the Ghana Health Service, sheds light on the far-reaching impact of air pollution: “Air Pollution has been associated with several diseases, notably respiratory diseases; acute ones as well as chronic ones. Cardiovascular diseases and even recent time linkages with miscarriages and infertility.”

Furthermore, Dr. Osei emphasizes the vulnerability of specific groups within the population: “We know that the children are more vulnerable because their lungs are not well developed. As well as the elderly who are not able to handle these pollutants as well as the young adults. We can also talk about those who have preexisting respiratory diseases. These are exacerbated when they are exposed to air pollutants.”

The World Health Organization’s stark statistic, revealing that approximately 99 per cent of the world’s population breathes polluted air, underscores the severity of the issue. Children and the elderly face the greatest risk when exposed to these pollutants. UNICEF’s Dr Emmanuel Kyeremateng-Amoah expresses particular concern for Ghana’s children: “If you look at pregnant women, it has an impact on them, including the developing baby in the womb. They may have low birth weight. Some die, and others have pneumonia. Even 50 per cent of children who die from pneumonia, it is due to air pollution.”

Dr. Kyeremateng-Amoah elaborates on the reasons behind children’s heightened vulnerability: “Children are still developing so their ability to withstand harmful emissions is lower than that of adults. Additionally, children breathe in more air at any given time than adults. So if there are harmful things in the air that you’re breathing, then children take in more. And they develop the disease faster. Children under five can get pneumonia and asthma just from air pollution.”

The grim reality is that air pollution claims 28,000 lives prematurely in Ghana every year. It is mainly driven by factors such as wood and charcoal cooking, road transport, slash-and-burn farming, open waste burning, energy generation, accidental fires, and industrial emissions.

Despite this dire situation, there is hope for change. Dr. Osei recommends simple measures like wearing a mask to reduce exposure: “Within the limitations of some of these protective measures like the respirators, you can reduce the black carbons and the particulates and reduce your exposure.”

While individual efforts matter, the true transformation will come when the government passes and enforces legislation to regulate emissions. Dr. Osei highlights the importance of monitoring exhaust emissions, particularly from diesel vehicles, which emit harmful black carbon responsible for a range of diseases.

UNICEF’s Dr. Kyeremateng-Amoah emphasizes the significant role of the transportation sector in addressing the air quality crisis: “If we can look at public transportation and improve it, and look at other ways like rail lines in the city. If we can ask people not to engage in open burning, it will help. Now let’s turn our attention to our homes, where we are at risk. If we can promote the use of cleaner fuel like LPG, biogas, and solar for electricity.”

The government has responded to the call for action. The Environmental Protection Agency is working in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport and the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Authority to update Accra’s 2018 Air Quality Management Plan, with implementation slated to begin soon.

In a promising development, the Clean Air Fund estimates that Accra could generate over $28 million by 2040 by implementing clean air measures. This not only offers hope for improved air quality but also presents an opportunity for substantial economic gains.

In conclusion, the battle against air pollution in Ghana is a shared responsibility. With government initiatives and individual actions, there is potential for cleaner air and better health outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable members of the population.

This story was a collaboration with Joy Online. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund which had no say in the story’s content.”