There is an unfolding public health crisis occurring across Africa. In the first attempt to calculate the impact of air pollution on the continent, researchers have found that it causes more premature deaths per year than either unsafe drinking water or malnutrition. Published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the paper warns that the numbers are expected to dramatically rise if nothing is done to mitigate the problem.
It is thought that breathing in polluted air caused the premature death of 712,000 people in 2013 on the continent, more than was caused by imbibing unsafe drinking water (542,000) or from malnutrition (275,000). The numbers of those killed by outdoor, or ambient, air pollution – which is caused by power stations, cars, and heavy industry – is thought to have increased by 36 percent from between 1990 and 2013, while those deaths caused by indoor air pollution are thought to have risen by 18 percent over the same period.
Air pollution is becoming an increasing problem, not just for people living in Africa, but around the world. Last year it was found that more people were killed prematurely from breathing in the dangerous particulates and chemicals found in outdoor air pollution than are killed by HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. Globally, it is thought that over 3 million people die prematurely from heart attacks and strokes induced by ambient pollution, but that doesn’t include the additional 3 million who are thought to die from breathing in indoor air pollution caused, for example, by cooking on open fires.
With 92 percent of people breathing in air that breaches the World Health Organization’s recommended limit, air pollution is actually the fourth largest killer on the planet, equating to contributing to one in every 10 deaths worldwide. It is feared that if Africa continues on the same trajectory it is currently on, it could develop into a public health and environmental disaster consistent with those already playing out in China and India, which in recent years have had major issues of heavy smog and public health warnings.
The cost of the vast numbers who died in Africa in 2013 to the economy is thought to have been in the region of $447 billion. This is obviously expected to rise, especially in regions where industrialization is beginning to rapidly increase, such as in Nigeria and Ethiopia. But there are other regions where the cause of the pollution is still not fully understood, and it is critical we figure this out if anything is to be done to mitigate the unfolding crisis that is occurring.