Pollution: The 'invisible killer' we must face now

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Smoke from using firewood is a major cause of pollution in many African homes. / Net photo.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched a campaign dubbed ‘BreatheLife’ to make people more aware about the fact that air pollution – which it calls the invisible killer – is a major health and climate risk.

Describing it as an ‘invisible killer and major health and climate risk, WHO says more than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the normal limits. They note that while all regions of the world are affected, populations in low-income cities are the most impacted.

This indicates that as urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in these places.

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Poor waste disposal (left) and fumes from second-hand cars pollute the water and air respectively

In Rwanda, some measures have been put in place to ensure that people are protected from acquiring diseases that come along with pollution.

The Rwandan law on pollution determines modalities for preservation of air quality and prevention of air pollution. This, according to Remy Duhuze, director of environmental regulation and pollution control at Rwanda Environment Management Authority, is just among the measures that will ensure a safe environment for human health as well other living things in the ecosystem.

How pollution comes about

Lucie Uwihesha, an environmental health officer at Kabarore Health Centre in Gatsibo District, says air pollution is when the air contains some pollutants, gases or fumes in amounts that are harmful to both human and animal health.

She notes that it comes about when burning fuels, from pesticide use, fumes from industries and automobiles, mining operation, as well as indoor pollutants.

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Poor waste disposal and fumes from second-hand cars pollute the water and air respectively

“For instance, indoor pollution can be due to the result of air conditioners or equipment that we use in our houses such as refrigerators. Such gadgets can produce some gases in case there are leakages that are toxic to human health and can even lead to suffocation in extreme cases,” she says.

Uwihesha adds that some paints that are used inside houses can also produce volatile organic compounds that can be inhaled leading asthma and sinusitis.

“Also, carbon dioxide produced during the respiratory process is a pollutant gas and is harmful to human health. Besides, insect spraying in the house, if not done with precaution, can also result to side effects depending on the reaction of one’s body,” she says.

Rachna Pande, an internal medicine specialist, says pollution simply means contamination, adding that many forms of pollution prevail in the environment, all of which are detrimental to human health.

She says that air is polluted due to contaminants released by motor vehicles and industries. It has led to global warming.

“People become more prone to bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis and allergic rhinitis due to air pollution. There is increased susceptibility to eczema. Incidence of skin cancers has increased due to excess exposure to ultraviolet rays, which is a result of pollution,” she says.

Research conducted by Disabled Go News, a UK-based agency, indicates that air pollution leads to more drug resistant bacteria.

The study goes further to point out how black carbon affects bacteria in the human’s nose, throat and lungs, possibly affecting their (bacteria) ability to beat the immune system.

Uwihesha also says air pollution can also result in skin cancers, heart diseases, blood cancers, lower and upper respiratory tract infections such as flue, asthma, as well as people developing watery eyes due to allergies.

There are also some pollutants that can attack the nervous system, leading to effects such as brain damage.

Who is at risk?

According to Uwihesha, pollution is harmful to any human being. However, children under the age of 14 years, those with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, heart problems, and pregnant women are more prone to the side effects of air pollution.

For children, she says this is because their lungs are still developing, which could lead to damage of their respiratory system.

On the other hand, those with non-communicable diseases are more vulnerable because of their health conditions that at times can’t tolerate the effects of pollution, while for the pregnant women, for instance, their organs including respiratory organs have to do double work to sustain both mother and baby.

“When exposed to such environments, such as inhaling the polluted smell with other toxins can even result into congenital malformation when the baby is born,” she says.

Iba Mayale, a gynecologist at Doctors Plaza Clinic Kimironko, Kigali, also points out that air pollution during pregnancy, especially in early stages can harm the unborn child.

“If a pregnant woman is exposed to poor air conditions, they are risking their pregnancy because depending on which kind of air pollution they are exposed to, they can suffer from intrauterine inflammation, a condition that can increase the risk of health problems for her child from birth and even proceed to later stages in their lives,” he says.

Other forms of pollution

Pande says water pollution is the least discussed about, yet it affects the entire water chain and deprives people of safe drinking water.

“Water borne infectious diseases like diarrhoea, viral hepatitis and worm infestation occur due to drinking contaminated water. Bathing in contaminated water can lead to diseases like schistosomiasis,” she says.

Pande adds that heavy metals, chemicals and even nuclear waste present in water cause sterility and cancers.

Noise pollution is yet another health hazard, she says, noting that it can lead to a ringing sensation in ears and dizziness.

Fatigue, irritability, headache and listlessness can occur due to sleep deprivation caused by loud noises, according to Pande.

Light pollution is not much discussed about but it does exist.

“Animals are affected as they rely on darkness for hunting and moving, while a human being needs a dark and calm atmosphere for sleeping and giving good rest to the mind and brain. Unfortunately due to both light and noise pollution this pattern is affected causing fatigue and complications,” she says.

How to stay safe

Duhuze says although preventing this kind of hazard is hard, considering specific remedies can be important in prevention of further complications.

“For instance, controlling pollutants from the sources, stopping burning of forests for charcoal which produces harmful gases to human health, as well as maintaining vehicles well so they produce less fumes is essential. Also people who are closer to sources that emit harmful gases should protect themselves by wearing masks,” he says.

Duhuze adds that since trees have that capacity of clearing the air, embracing the culture of planting more trees is essential as far as minimising the effects of carbon dioxide and maintaining good health are concerned.

However, Pande says prevention of air pollution has to be a collective effort by all concerned.

“At individual level, some simple measures can be undertaken. Use ear plugs to avoid noise pollution. Keep your own house and room dark at the time of sleeping, drink only safe, and swim in hygienic water. Most important, each person can decide not to contribute to pollution in any way possible,” she says.

Cause for worry

A recent study by Global Policy Forum indicated that Africa’s air pollution is causing more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition, and could develop into a health and climate crisis reminiscent of those seen in China and India.

The first major attempt to calculate both the human and financial cost of the continent’s pollution suggests dirty air could be killing 712,000 people a year prematurely, compared with approximately 542,000 from unsafe water, 275,000 from malnutrition and 391,000 from unsafe sanitation.

The study’s author, Rana Roy, is concerned by the pace at which outdoor air pollution is growing in Africa, bucking the downward trend in most countries. Used cars and trucks imported from rich countries are adding to urban pollution caused by household cooking on open fires.

“This mega trend is set to continue to unfold throughout this century. It suggests that current means of transportation and energy generation in African cities are not sustainable,” said Roy.