TORONTO – Air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths in Africa in 2019, while costing African countries billions of dollars in GDP, a new study says.
The study was led by researchers based in Massachusetts and involved researchers from Kenya and Rwanda affiliated with the United Nations Environment Programme. Author published its findings this month In Lancet Planetary Health.
Researchers looked at the 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study, a Lancet study from October 2020, that measured causes of diseases and death in more than 200 countries and territories, as well as World Health Organization air pollution data.
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The majority of air pollution deaths in Africa were related to household air pollution, which caused 697,000 deaths that year. Many African households still rely on fuels such as charcoal and kerosene for stoves indoors. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, an estimated 98 percent of households still use these fuels.
But while deaths from household air pollution are gradually decreasing, deaths from ambient air pollution are increasing. In 2015, air pollution deaths accounted for 361,000 deaths compared to 383,000 in 2019.
Boston College professor Philip Landrigan, who co-led the study, said the increase in deaths related to ambient air pollution was “the most disturbing finding”.
“While this growth is still modest, it threatens to increase rapidly as African cities grow and the continent develops economically over the next two to three decades.”
Africa is going through a period of massive economic transformation. The continent is experiencing rapid urbanization and industrialization, which comes with increased consumption of fossil fuels. By 2100, the continent is expected to have 13 megacities and its population will more than triple from 1.3 billion to 4.3 billion.
Overall, household and ambient air pollution combined was linked to 1.1 million deaths in Africa, making it the second leading cause of death on the continent after AIDS. It is more deaths from tobacco, alcohol, road accidents and drug abuse.
However, deaths from communicable diseases such as AIDS and malaria are declining. The authors say that Africa is undergoing a “large-scale epidemiological transition from communicable to non-communicable diseases,” such as diseases caused by air pollution.
The researchers also looked at the effects of PM2.5, a pollutant from fossil fuels and wildfires that is made up of particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. Several previous studies have shown that PM2.5 is particularly harmful to the brain development of infants and young children. Researchers calculated that Africa has lost 1.96 billion IQ points as a result of air pollution.
In addition to the impact on human health, the researchers also examined how deaths and diseases caused by air pollution affected the economies of the three African countries. They calculated the cost to be US$3.02 billion in Ethiopia, US$1.63 billion in Ghana, and US$349 million in Rwanda. These costs range between 0.95 percent and 1.19 percent of the country’s GDP.
The authors say their findings underscore the need for investments in renewable energy, reduction of road traffic, restrictions on agricultural burning and systems to monitor and control air pollution trends in Africa.
“We encourage Africa’s leaders to take advantage of the fact that their countries are still relatively early in their economic development and are making rapid transitions to wind and solar energy, thus plunging into fossil-fuel based economies. Avoid,” Landrigan said. “We argue that African countries are in a unique position to leapfrog on mistakes made elsewhere and achieve prosperity without pollution.”