By Gift Briton

Caroline Akinyi is a street vendor in Nairobi. Over the last six years, she has been selling food along the busy Juja road in Mathare, Kenya’s second-largest informal settlement.

A few metres away from her workstation is a bus stage on one side and a dumping ground on the other. As Akinyi continues her work, she is engulfed in fumes from vehicle exhausts and smoke from burning wastes. She also directly inhales carbon monoxide from burning charcoal which she uses to cook.

A few months ago, the 32-year-old mother of six became sick. What started as a normal cough with on-and-off fever gradually escalated into a severe health issue. She was diagnosed with severe pneumonia.

“The doctor interrogated me and said that these conditions were caused by the air pollutants I had been exposed to over time and he advised me, if possible, to relocate my business to a new place that is less polluted and always wear face mask,” she says.

Akinyi represents over 2.5 million people in Kenya suffering from pneumonia, whose cause is linked to deteriorating air quality.

According to the Economic Survey 2023 report, pneumonia is a top cause of death and suffering in Kenya with cases increasing every year since 2018, except in 2020, with approximately over 5,000 cases of the disease reported daily across the country.

Alex Osiemo, a doctor at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) hospital in Mathare, observes that although pneumonia is predominantly caused by viruses and bacteria, it can also be caused when a person comes in contact with a surface contaminated with pathogens such as pollutants suspended in the air.

Analysis of data from Code for Africa’s air quality monitoring sensors reveals that air pollution levels in Mathare have exceeded the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended standards by almost fourfold.

Air pollution is measured by the concentration of particulate matter suspended in the air in micrograms per cubic metres(µg/m3).

According to the WHO guidelines, exposure to more than 15 µg/m3 of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in a single day is risky to human health.

However, data from the sensors in Mathare shows that some days recorded as high as 57 µg/m3 of PM2.5 and this level of pollution remained high during the day and night, as recorded by the sensors.

“Severe air pollution levels, like the one in Mathare, can weaken the filtration mechanism of respiratory tract and airways, increasing the chances of developing serious cardiovascular and respiratory infections like pneumonia,” he adds.

Osiemo notes that eight in every ten hospital visits at SHOFCO over the last seven months were due to air pollution-related ailments.

“I know of some autopsy reports that compared the lung of a smoker and the lung of a person who lived in a city where air pollution was bad like what we are now witnessing. The autopsy found out that the lung of a smoker and that of a person living in a polluted area were quite similar,” Dr George Mwaniki, Head of Air Quality at World Resource Institute(WRI) Africa observes.

Mwaniki Pointed out: “Pollution levels in the informal settlements are higher because waste dumping and burning is done there, some major roads also pass in those neighbourhoods and majority of people living there use charcoal or firewood to cook.”

According to him, high pollution like the one recorded in Mathare is poisonous to humans and exacerbates the rise and burden of deadly diseases and life-threatening conditions. Air pollution is responsible for approximately 8,000 premature deaths yearly in Nairobi.

Moreover, data from GEOHealth Hub confirms that air pollution is widespread across Nairobi. According to the data, since August 2019, the average annual concentration of PM 2.5 in Nairobi has consistently remained higher than the WHO guidelines.

WHO guidelines recommend that the annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5µg/m3. However, analysis of GEOHealth’s data indicates that Nairobi has four times higher pollution than the recommended standards.

Also, the daily pollution levels across the city remained high, with some days recording as high as 50 µg/m3 instead of below 15µg/m3 limit by WHO.

Compared to other neighbouring cities in Eastern Africa, Nairobi has the fastest increase in pollution rates, which has worsened by 180% since the 1960s.

“In Nairobi, three in every ten hospital visits are due to respiratory infections that are very closely linked to air pollution, with around 30% of the county’s healthcare budget being used to address air pollution-related ailments,” Dr. Mwaniki says.

Air pollution consists of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air that can harm human health. The primary driver of air pollution in Nairobi, according to Dr Mwaniki, is vehicular emissions. Most vehicles and motorbikes in Nairobi use diesel, a notorious emitter of pollutants.

“Although Kenya has a law that forbids the importation of vehicles older than eight years since their manufactured date, the majority of the vehicles imported get their catalytic converters (commonly known as mufflers) removed either at the port once they reach Kenya or at the garage after some time,” he adds.

These mufflers have a technology and chemicals that trap the particulate matter before they are released into the atmosphere.

The other major sources include open waste burning, domestic cooking using biomass fuels, industries using fossil fuels, wildfires, construction, and more.

These sources release pollutants into the air, including Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, soot, lead, greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, dust, ozone, and particulate matter.

Of great concern and the deadliest is the particulate matter, especially the one with a diameter equal to or less than 2.5 micrograms, commonly known as PM2.5.

PM2.5 is forty times smaller than human hair and can stay in the air for weeks and travel hundreds of kilometres. This increases their chances of being inhaled before landing on the ground. Also, due to their microscopic nature, when inhaled, they can easily penetrate the airways and enter the bloodstream, causing several deadly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as strokes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, and premature births.

Mwaniki says that people need to be aware of air pollution and how they can reduce their level of exposure by not spending too much time in heavily polluted areas.

“To improve air quality, we need a more efficient transport system, better waste management system, ensuring that households have the right cooking and lighting energy and ensuring industries are using clean energy,” Dr Mwaniki said.

He also advises that one of the most practical ways to reduce air pollution would be promoting and accelerating electric vehicle adoption.

“There is a need to transition vehicles and motorbikes to use clean energy and that would have a huge impact on reducing the pollution levels. In terms of fuel consumption, electric vehicles and motorbikes are six times less costly than fossil fuels,” he adds.