Wind turbines tower over agricultural fields in Tunisia.
Wind turbines, like these in Tunisia, may help reduce air pollution in Africa. Credit: Anastasia Palagutina/Unsplash

Air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths across Africa in 2019, with more than half of those fatalities associated with household (indoor) pollutants, according to a  study recently published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

“Furthermore, air pollution is costing African countries billions [of dollars] in gross domestic product and can be correlated to a devastating loss in the intellectual development of Africa’s children,” researchers found.

Edmond Sanganyado, an associate professor of environmental science at Shantou University in China, agreed. Sanganyado was not a part of the new research but said that if African communities did not address air pollution, the results would be catastrophic.

More than 350 million African children live in households that use solid fuels, mostly wood and coal, for cooking and heating. Sanganyado, who is also president of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences, said emissions from these solid fuels were the main causes of indoor air pollution.

While use of electrical stoves has helped to reduce indoor air pollution, the gains are now being reversed due to the current electricity shortage in most sub-Saharan African countries.”

“This is quite heartbreaking because air pollution affects intelligence in children,” he said.

“We think policymakers in African countries need to be concerned about rising levels of air pollution, about the rising levels of disease and death that are already resulting from these increases in pollution and the very great economic losses that their countries will suffer if air pollution continues to increase unchecked,” said Boston College professor of biology Philip Landrigan, coauthor of the new study.

Sanganyado said a shift away from wood and coal and toward solar and wind could help reduce the hazard. Household air pollution has fallen over the past 10 years, the study found, although ambient (outdoor) air pollution has increased.

“While use of electrical stoves has helped to reduce indoor air pollution, the gains are now being reversed due to the current electricity shortage in most sub-Saharan African countries,” Sanganyado said.

Reliance on Fossil Fuels

“A lot needs to be done to mitigate the effects of pollution, especially on vulnerable groups such [as] children, the sick, and the elderly.”

Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Harare, Zimbabwe, added that the report lifts the lid on a silent killer whose catastrophic impacts are growing with each passing day, thanks to an overreliance on fossil fuels. Maguwu was not involved in the new report.

“Places like Hwange [Zimbabwe], where there is a 920-megawatt thermal power generation station, choke [the air] with sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and coal ash.… A lot needs to be done to mitigate the effects of pollution, especially on vulnerable groups such [as] children, the sick, and the elderly,” Maguwu said.

Landry Ninteretse, regional director of the environmental organization 350Africa.org, said fossil fuel combustion contributed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution and had to be significantly reduced if the continent wanted to save African populations from preventable diseases.

“The most common health impacts of coal plants include lung damage, breathing problems, renal complications, effects on the nervous system, pulmonary effects, cardiovascular diseases, and an increased potential for cancer,” Ninteretse said.

Measurement and Mitigation

Sanganyado said that before Africa developed strategies and technologies to reduce air pollution, there was a widespread need to accurately and regularly measure indoor and outdoor air quality.

“The first step to fight air pollution is to build real-time air monitoring stations across Africa,” he said. “Just like with COVID-19, daily monitoring will help us identify hot spots and develop preventive measures. We cannot understand the impact of air pollution or develop effective strategies to combat air pollution if we do not have reliable real-time air quality monitoring,” he said.

Addressing the current situation does not have to require significant investments in technology or capital, Sanganyado said. Nature-based mitigation strategies, such as conservation of grasslands and forests, can financially compete with costly air purification technologies.

“This should be good news for African cities; planting trees and having greenbelts throughout the city could help reduce air pollution,” he said.

In addition, Ninteretse supported a strong, rapid push for solar and wind power by governments and development partners across Africa. Developing renewables is likely to reduce air pollution, stimulate sustainable and safe growth, and improve the livelihoods of more than half a billion residents of sub-Saharan Africa who live without any electricity at all, he said.

—Andrew Mambondiyani (@mambondiyani), Science Writer

Citation: Mambondiyani, A. (2021), Air pollution killed a million people in Africa in 2019, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210565. Published on 25 October 2021.
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