Air Pollution in Africa Is More Deadly Than Malnutrition

Polluted air kills more than 700,000 people in Africa every year.

Every year 712,000 people die in Africa from illnesses related to polluted air, new research from a global policy forum found. Air pollution there is more deadly than malnutrition, unclean water or unsafe sanitation.

The study connects the uninterrupted growth of Africa's urban population to the rising number of premature deaths from air pollution. The author, Rana Roy, notes that while air pollution is most severe in Asia, particularly in the densely populated countries of China and India where rapid urbanization is a key factor, Africa could soon develop a climate and health crisis similar to the one that China and India have been facing for the past two decades.

From 1990 to 2013 outdoor air pollution increased by a staggering 36 percent across Africa as a whole. Countries like Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria have seen rapid industrialization along with an increase in outdoor air pollution from traffic and power generation. Cooking on open fires is also a concern. Many African households use inefficient stoves and fuel sources for heating food.

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"In cities such as London, [air pollution is] mainly due to the burning of hydrocarbons for transport," Mathew Evans, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University, said in the study. "African pollution isn't like that. There is the burning of rubbish, cooking indoors with inefficient fuel stoves, millions of steel diesel electricity generators, cars which have had the catalytic converters removed and petrochemical plants. Compounds such as sulphur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide, that haven't been issues in western cities for decades, may be a significant problem in African cities. We simply don't know."

These various pollutants contribute to multiple pulmonary and respiratory diseases like stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic and acute asthma.

Roy argues that the current model of transportation and energy sources isn't sustainable and calls for an end to government subsidies for production and use of coal, petroleum and natural gas.

The paper is the first to attempt to calculate the cost, both human and financial, of air pollution on the African continent.

"What is observable in present-day Africa is a synchronization of multiple environmental and developmental challenges," Roy said, "that most other societies have been able to tackle successively rather than simultaneously, focussing on one problem at a time."

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