Nairobi is an extremely dangerous city to live in. Not because of thuggery. Our capital’s urban violence is amongst the lowest of all cities worldwide, in actual fact. But because of the air, the filthy, contaminant laden, toxic, death inducing air that we all breathe in and out of our bodies every waking day.
The biggest channel from there to the morgue are respiratory diseases, which kill 12 per cent of us, across asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, laryngitis, pneumonia and influenza.
But the deaths from our particular type of heavy pollution don’t end there. Our air quality is causing cancer, and heart disease. It’s messing up our hormonal balance, and damaging our reproductive system. And just in case anyone had a plan for some way to stop breathing the city’s air, its polluting the plants and animals we eat, and poisoning us through what we eat too.
Indeed, one Nairobi study found eggs in Dandora so loaded with cancer-causing pollutants that they topped the World Health Organisation (WHO) health limits many times over – so we’re eating the poisons from our air, even as we breathe them too.
None of it is good for our daily health or life expectancy. But why is Nairobi’s pollution so very much worse that other global cities – 30 times worse than London, according to the occasional studies that independent researchers bother with?
The drivers are several. A prime cause is our vehicles. Kenya is one of very few countries in Africa to have banned leaded petrol that filled the air with sulphur.
But many of our vehicles run on diesel, which has been proven to be more damaging still to human health, not only causing cancer, heart and lung damage, but affecting our mental faculties.
Our diesel load is made higher still by generators. We have one of the cleanest electricity generating systems in the world – 87 per cent of our national grid power is produced from geothermal heat, water and wind. Yet the grid’s unreliability sees hundreds of thousands of homes and offices running diesel generators that are little cancer-causing spots all in their own right.
The age and state of our vehicles, that become more polluting the older and more faulty they get, and the levels of traffic congestions, which sit we city dwellers in intensive vehicle pollution for hours on end from Mombasa Road to Thika Road, make things worse again.
And we also have another factor pushing up our toxic air levels, in open burning. That weird smell that comes from burning plastics and rubber isn’t just a weird smell, it’s one of the most toxic pollutants to mankind, loaded with dioxins and furans that are a straight line to cancer, impotence and allergies of all kinds.
Says the WHO: “Once dioxins have entered the environment or the body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability.”
In short, every single plastic fire you smell is an extra toxic load you’ve taken in for the rest of your life.
It puts a different perspective on your neighbours’ burning habits, or all those businesses, and even hospitals – amazing, but absolutely true – running unfiltered incinerators as a way of managing refuse.
Then the extra killer again, is the burning in homes, kerosene stoves, even open wood and charcoal burners, that are a smash to everyone’s lungs and bodies inside the home and then far beyond it too, as the particulates generated rove off for sharing everywhere.
When it comes to plastic bags, Kenya has gone further in now eradicating them, by law and by penalties, than any other country in the world.
But when it comes to our air, which we all have no choice but to breathe - from the President to every resident of Kibera - we continue to look the other way, and visit our dying friends and relatives in hospital.
So here’s to toxic Nairobi: a poison pill you wouldn’t wish on anyone.