Air Pollution
The Silent Killer

Air Quality_Nairobi
© Photo (detail): Baz Ratner © picture alliance / REUTERS

Towards the end of 2019, air pollution in New Delhi triggered a public health emergency that made for apocalyptic headlines. Breathing in the throat-burning air was equivalent to smoking fifty cigarettes a day, and in some parts of the city, air pollution levels were twenty times greater than what is deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

In Delhi, un-ironic news surfaced of "clean air bars," closed indoor spaces where patrons could pay to enjoy filtered air. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we often see that when resources become scarce or polluted, access to plenty and clean resources are made available at a price, offering a private escape hatch from deteriorating commons. When it comes to air, this discrepancy is simply made more obvious.
In fact, to varying degrees, air pollution affects almost everyone in the world: The WHO recently reported that more than 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO guidelines, and that each year 7 million people die from pollution-related factors. But the areas experiencing the most extreme air pollution are, by far, cities in the global south. In high-income countries, 49% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. In low- and middle-income countries, it’s 97%.
Air pollution in Nairobi and other African cities is getting worse, but there is a big problem: we don’t know how bad it is because it is not being measured. In 2015, there were more monitoring stations in the city of Paris than on the entire African continent. Professor Michael Gatari of the University of Nairobi, which hosts one of Kenya’s few high-resolution reference monitoring stations, says, “[Air pollution in Nairobi] has been increasing, although without continuous monitoring there is no data to prove that.” Vehicle emissions, suspended dust, and waste burning, he adds, are all major sources of pollution in Nairobi, all of which have increased rapidly as the city’s population has boomed within a matter of years. It is thus likely that the speed at which pollution is getting worse is also increasing—though there is hardly any data on this either.
In an overview of the challenges of monitoring air quality in Kenya, Priyanka deSouza, a PhD candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes that the highly accurate reference monitors whose data qualify for regulatory purposes, can cost upwards of $100,000. Though other methods, like remote sensing, visibility, low cost monitors, and satellites can be useful indicators, says Gatari, when it comes to standards related to human health, the data they generate cannot be used to enforce legal regulations.
Having reliable data on air pollution—and the corresponding epidemiological data—over years is important because knowing how many people die of air pollution-related factors is a necessary condition for advocating for better policies. But in Kenya, these data are also important because they are necessary to enforce environmental laws that already exist. In 2014, Parliament passed relatively progressive air quality regulations. But, without the reference monitors required to produce data at a high enough resolution to legally enforce those regulations, those air quality laws don’t have teeth.
At the same time, DeSouza believes that low-cost monitors—like those set up in Nairobi by Code For Africa, the Stockholm Environment Center, and the African Population and Health Research Center, mostly in low-income districts—still generate useful information, and can play an important, albeit temporary, role, even if they cannot be used to uphold regulations. These monitors, DeSouza writes, which cost under $3,000, “can fill in the gaps in our understanding of air pollution and are even more important for developing countries where few high-quality instruments exist, if they exist at all.”
Even if low-cost monitors yield low-resolution data, sometimes it’s enough. For example, she says, data from low-cost monitors show that in some of Nairobi’s informal settlements, air quality standards are regularly violated by a significant margin. That information, even if it is insufficient to back legal regulations, can still be used to mobilize local political action or at least raise awareness of local air pollution.
At the end of the day, however, while monitoring is key to improving public health, it is not in itself a solution. Over the course of many interviews, the residents of Lungalunga, a low-income area adjacent to Nairobi’s industrial area, told DeSouza that there was a teargas factory nearby whose industrial waste not only leaves an odious stench but irritates their breathing. It doesn't take particularly refined monitoring to tell that people can't breathe and are falling ill. The problem isn’t that we are unable to measure the problem but rather that there is no political will to solve it. .
Sustainability is a forward-facing word; when we speak of “sustainability,” we often think of future generations and future environments. But, in the age of climate change, the dark side of looking forward is facing more bad “first evers” than ever before. The air pollution crisis in New Delhi—extreme not only because of the degree of pollution itself but the scale of its impact—is a somber reminder that urban air pollution, something that barely existed a couple of centuries ago and now shortens and claims lives globally, is certainly not going to go away. According to a 2010 UN report, urbanization rates in Africa are among the highest in the world, and by 2035, more than half of all Africans will live in urban areas.
As we can see from the challenges that Kenya faces in measuring and countering air pollution—and, importantly, the opportunities offered by new tools that focus on local data and mobilization—we cannot rely solely on old methods for solving new “first evers.” Not only must we embrace new “hard” tools for understanding, measuring, analyzing physical changes, but also new “soft” tools for integrating those data with principles, legal mechanisms, and ultimately with organizing strategies, all of which must work together for one goal to come into focus: the right for every human to breathe.