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Air pollution in Africa responsible for 1.1 million deaths in 2019: study

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TORONTO — A new study says that air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths in Africa in 2019 while costing billions of dollars in GDP for African countries.

The study was led by researchers based in Massachusetts and involved researchers from Kenya and Rwanda affiliated with the UN Environment Programme. The authors published their findings this month in The Lancet Planetary Health.

The researchers looked at the 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study, a Lancet study from October 2020 that measured diseases and causes of death in over 200 countries and territories, as well as air pollution data from the World Health Organization.

Most of the air pollution deaths in Africa were related to household air pollution, which accounted for 697,000 deaths that year. Many African households still rely on fuels such as charcoal and kerosene for indoor cookstoves. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, an estimated 98 per cent of households still use these fuels.

But while deaths due to household air pollution have been slowly declining, deaths from ambient air pollution have been on the rise. 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 ambient air pollution-related deaths was “the most disturbing finding.”

“While this increase is still modest, it threatens to increase exponentially as African cities grow in the next two to three decades and the continent develops economically.”

Africa is undergoing a massive economic shift. The continent is experincing rapid urbanization and industrialization, which comes with increased fossil fuel consumption. By 2100, the continent is expected to have 13 megacities and more than triple its population from 1.3 billion to 4.3 billion.

In total, household and ambient air pollution combined were linked to 1.1 million deaths in Africa, making it the second largest cause of death on the continent after AIDS. That’s more deaths than tobacco, alcohol, road accidents, and drug abuse.

However, deaths due to communicable diseases, such as AIDS and malaria, are on the decline. The authors say that Africa is “passing through a massive epidemiological transition from communicable to non-communicable diseases,” such as the diseases caused by air pollution.

The researchers also looked into the effects of PM2.5, which are pollutants from fossil fuels and wildfires that are made up of tiny particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres. Numerous previous studies have shown that PM2.5 is particularly harmful to the brain development of infants and young children. The researchers calculated that as many as 1.96 billion IQ points have been lost in Africa as a result of air pollution.

In addition to the impact on human health, the researchers also investigated how deaths and illnesses due to air pollution has affected the economies of three African countries. They calculated that the costs are as high as US$3.02 billion in Ethiopia, US$1.63 billion in Ghana and US$349 million in Rwanda. These costs range between 0.95 per cent and 1.19 per cent 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 burnings and systems to monitor and control trends in air pollution 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 to transition rapidly to wind and solar energy, thus avoiding entrapment in fossil-fuel-based economies,” said Landrigan. “We argue that African countries are in a unique position to leapfrog over mistakes made elsewhere and to achieve prosperity without pollution.”

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