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Lung diseases rise as pollution chokes Kenyan households


About 14,300 Kenyans die annually due to health conditions traceable to indoor air pollution, a recent United Nation report shows. The most prominent of these is pneumonia.

According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, pneumonia has recently been the top killer disease, dislodging malaria, from 2015 to date. In addition, respiratory system ailments are the most common diseases in local health facilities.

“Studies show a connection between air pollution and respiratory diseases. The burning of solid fuels on open res or traditional inefficient stoves generate products of incomplete combustion in the form of gases and aerosols which are health hazards,” says Dr Isaac Kalua, the chair of the Green Africa Foundation.

National Environment Management Authority has reported a bump of about 482 per cent in the number of environmental crimes committed from 66 in 2013 to 384 in 2017.

In addition, the 2017 Lancet Commission on pollution and health noted that Kenya suffered more than $1.88 billion in welfare damages from ambient and household air pollution, equivalent to about 3.05 per cent of gross national income.

In one calculation, the report found that the country also incurred total productivity losses amounting to 0.492 per cent of the gross domestic product from the same.

Inadequate access to clean cooking fuels and technologies is the main source of household pollution.

According to the last national census, at least 6.57 per cent of Kenyan households rely primarily on clean fuels for cooking, which include electricity, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), biogas and solar, while 64.62 per cent, representing nearly 5.67 million households, use firewood as the main source of cooking fuel followed by charcoal.

The use of open fire for cooking and heating is linked to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer as well as triggering asthma attacks. It also leads to heart diseases, cataracts and poisoning from ingesting fuels.

Studies show that since women do the cooking in many households, they are more vulnerable to the health effects of household air pollution which include some reproductive dysfunction.

Cooking three meals a day over an open fire can be equivalent to smoking three to 20 packets of cigarettes a day. There is also evidence that women’s bodies metabolise pollutants more quickly than men’s.

Despite World Health Organisation’s call to reduce annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM), Kenya’s values continue to exceed this.

The PM2.5 value, which measures pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon which are the riskiest to human health, is at 17 g/m³ which is 1.7 times the recommended 10 g/m³. PM10, which includes coarse materials from crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred up on roads is at 33g/m³ instead of the recommended 20 g/m³.

A large portion of the southern parts of the country enjoys better air quality than the average. However, some western and northwestern regions suffer higher air pollution due to numerous mining activities.

Additional sources of air pollution include industrial activity, agriculture and transport. According to the World Bank, only an overall 13 per cent of Kenya’s population can access clean fuels and technologies, an improvement from two per cent in 2002.

On the cooking front, draft regulations published in the Kenya Gazette expressed intent to dismantle the pool system which enables Kenyans to replace empty gas cylinders across marketers, a move that could slow down a growing reliance on LPG for cooking. High petroleum prices also trigger more interest in wood-based fuels.