Smog can creep up on you, slowly becoming a little more visible, and a little more, until you just get used to the orange haze hanging in the air at end day. But last week someone sent me a video of the wind that swept into Nairobi during the evening commute, and while the leaves swirled and the camera crackled from the wind, all that I could really see in that video was a sudden shot on film of just how bad the smog in the city has become.
The air was thick and orange, with a proud sun behind coming close to setting for the day. No clouds, no rain, lots of wind, and dust and pollution, and actually a smoky fog of particulates: that we all breathe, into our lungs, where they do irreparable damage, shortening our life expectancy, making us sick.
I sent pictures to my team of the pollution face masks worn long-since in most of Asia’s most polluted cities, and now being banned in Hong Kong because they stop people from being recognisable in street protests and other crimes.
But they also protect human health, and with health now so seriously contributed by the city’s pollution, it becomes ever harder to see why such a basic matter should be nearly nowhere in the public policy agenda. Air pollution causes strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases, all of which have been on the rise in Kenya to now pole position as the country’s killers. Yet still we stare at our ever-dirtier air, as if nothing can be done. We ban plastic bags, as one of the only countries in the world to take such an environmental lead. We move on plastic bottles, and do a great deal of tree planting. It’s not like it used to be when we didn’t think about our environmental footprint at all.
And yet when it comes to the causes of air pollution, we continue to do just about nothing, even though there is literally no escape from this killer. I have noted before, even in State House, they are breathing the Nairobi air with its contents of tiny particles and nitrogen dioxide way over the healthy limits set by the World Health Organisation.
Polluted air knows no boundaries and makes no distinctions. You can be a saint or a sinner, and particulates will kill you either way. And why are they so sky high in our city? A primary cause is the vehicles. Our failure to run an annual testing procedure that bans cars from the road if they are spewing out pollutants is costing us dearly.
In other countries, those lorries and cars that belch out smoky and even sometimes black exhaust fumes just are not there. They are illegal, and the first police car they drove past creating such filth for the rest of us to breathe would see them pulled off the roads, as and until they fix their internal combustion system.
Our next big polluter is open burning of rubbish. Again, that smell we all catch as we move around Nairobi of burning plastic or rubber, you don’t smell it in other countries.
It’s also illegal. Because every time you are smelling it, the smell you are smelling with your nose, is toxins straight into your lungs that stay there forever, a little cash pile of PCBs building up to your cancer prize. Now, we have a huge problem generally with rubbish. Long gone are the days when the city council used to collect it. Wealthier estates pay a little extra privately to get their waste collected and taken to landfill or incinerated. None of us ever ask if the incinerators have filters on them.
But if we had municipal waste incinerators, they come with filters that stop the outpouring of filthy smoke and can also generate power too. Northern Europe uses them comprehensively, in some countries for a large proportion of their electricity. However, for us, the rubbish will continue to burn by the roadside, killing us all. We will see it less, as the smog thickens, and we can go down in history as killed by our own rubbish.