Every day, as we take a breath, our bodies are exposed to an invisible storm of particles that not only endanger our lungs but also our heart, blood, and brain. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Air pollution is a widespread problem that is continuously worsening.
A child playing with industrial building in the background
In Ghana, air pollution is a harsh reality, resulting in the premature deaths of 28,000 individuals each year. This issue is primarily caused by activities such as wood and charcoal cooking, road transportation, slash-and-burn farming, open waste burning, energy generation, accidental fires, and industrial emissions.
Economically, Ghana loses an estimated 1.6 billion U.S. dollars annually due to air pollution, a problem that desperately needs political attention and action.
Both outdoor and household air pollution pose a global threat to health. Common sources of outdoor air pollution include burning fossil fuels, vehicle emissions, and crop burning.
Days with poor air quality prevent children from engaging in outdoor activities and playing with their friends. As a result, they miss out on the physical, social, and emotional benefits that these early experiences bring. In the long run, the impact of polluted air on children’s ability to learn and play can affect their future well-being and even their earning potential.
Have you ever truly considered the significance of clean air for your health and overall well-being? Put yourself in the shoes of a family doctor faced with a young boy who frequently suffers from asthma attacks. As you embark on the journey of gathering his medical history, you realise that there might be more to the story than meets the eye. Could air pollution be an underlying risk factor worth considering in your patient’s assessment? How would you advise her to reduce her risk?
Air pollution and Asthma
Fiifi, a Senior High School graduate, shared his story with me, saying, while I was growing up, I often felt lonely and isolated. I couldn’t socialise with my classmates during break time at school. The dust from the school’s football pitch would irritate me and trigger a reaction. Initially, I didn’t understand why this was happening until our family doctor diagnosed me with asthma. I vividly remember him mentioning that one of the causes could be poor air quality. It has been a challenging journey since then, but I have learned to adapt and live with this condition for the past 19 years.
Cleaner air, according to research, directly impacts our health and well-being. In order for children to grow, learn, and reach their full potential, they require clean air to breathe. Enhancing air quality is one of the most effective methods to protect the health and well-being of children. Doctors assert that investing in clean air not only shields babies from conception but also prevents childhood illnesses and conditions such as asthma, which are caused by polluted air. It promotes the healthy development of children, enabling them to learn and play outdoors. In fact, clean air is essential for all of us to live, grow, and thrive.
University of Manchester
Researchers at the University of Manchester have conducted studies on the potential benefits of cleaner air on memory. Their findings indicate that improved air quality could enhance a child’s working memory by 6%, equivalent to an additional four weeks of learning per year. Unfortunately, 99% of us are exposed to harmful and polluted air, making air pollution one of the most significant threats to our health. Research indicates that over 7 million people die each year due to air pollution, which is more than twice the combined number of deaths from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.
Dr Simpson Boateng, a Public Health Professional, emphasises the extensive impact of air pollution on children’s health. He states, Air pollution constitutes a critical public health crisis, leading to countless premature deaths among both adults and children annually. The detrimental effects of poor air quality are particularly pronounced in infants and young children, significantly compromising their overall health and well-being. Addressing this issue is crucial in order to prevent prenatal exposure and mitigate the risk of asthma and other related illnesses. By reducing air pollution levels, we have the potential to save and enhance the lives of millions.
Why are children at a higher risk?
Air quality is crucial for the well-being of individuals from the moment they are conceived. Pollution poses a threat to fetuses, increasing the likelihood of premature birth and miscarriage. Particularly during childhood, clean air becomes even more essential. A report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that more than 90 percent of children worldwide under the age of 15 (amounting to 1.8 billion children) are exposed to highly polluted air, putting their health, development, and future at significant risk.
Children, due to their faster breathing rate, inhale a greater amount of polluted air compared to adults. Moreover, toddlers and young children in strollers are particularly vulnerable to exhaust fumes as they are closer to the ground.
Impact of air pollution on children’s health
Air pollution poses a significant threat to the health of children, particularly those who are most vulnerable. The detrimental effects of air pollution on child health cannot be ignored.
Air pollution is a pressing issue that affects millions of people worldwide. However, children are particularly susceptible to its harmful effects due to their developing bodies and immune systems. They breathe in more air per kilogram of body weight compared to adults, making them more exposed to pollutants in the air.
Exposure to air pollution has been linked to a wide range of health problems in children. Respiratory issues such as asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia are common among children living in areas with high levels of air pollution. Additionally, air pollution has been associated with an increased risk of developmental delays, cognitive impairments, and even low birth weight in newborns.
The most vulnerable children, such as those living in poverty or in densely populated urban areas, are disproportionately affected by air pollution. These children often lack access to clean air and are more likely to live near industrial sites or busy roads, where pollution levels are higher.
In Ghana, alarming data from Kaneshie in Accra consistently reports PM2.5 levels far exceeding the WHO’s recommended 24-hour exposure limit of 15 μg/m3. For instance, on September 5, 2023, the PM2.5 levels at Kaneshie stood at a hazardous 155 μg/m3. The consequences of air pollution in Ghana are dire. Premature deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. One significant challenge lies in the invisible nature of air pollution’s effects. Ghana lacks comprehensive real-time air quality monitoring systems, making it difficult to assess the full extent of this looming crisis.
Moreover, pregnant women exposed to polluted air are more likely to give birth prematurely and have small, low birth-weight children. Air pollution is responsible for 20% of newborn deaths worldwide, primarily caused by complications related to low birth weight and preterm birth. Among these deaths, nearly two-thirds are associated with household air pollution.
The impact of dirty air extends to children’s education as well. Studies conducted worldwide have identified unhealthy levels of pollution in close proximity to schools. This pollution can lead to decreased school attendance and attention problems among students. In heavily polluted countries, schools may even be forced to shut down entirely due to the harmful effects of polluted air.
Infographic on children’s exposure to air pollution
However, amidst this grim situation, there is a glimmer of hope. The Clean Air Fund has projected that Accra, the capital city of Ghana, could generate more than $28 million by 2040 through the implementation of clean air measures. This not only provides optimism for improved air quality but also presents a significant opportunity for substantial economic growth.
The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Act, Act 490, mandates the EPA Ghana to co-manage, protect, and enhance the country’s environment and seek common solutions to global environmental problems. To achieve this goal, the Agency collaborates with government agencies and other institutions to take action to reduce air pollution and bring transformative change to lifestyles.
In Ghana, the EPA with the support of the World Bank, the University of Ghana, the US EPA, and the US Embassy in Accra, has installed air quality monitoring sites in selected places in Accra. They are working in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority to update Accra’s 2018 Air Quality Management Plan, with implementation slated to begin soon.
Key actions to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution
Addressing the issue of air pollution and its impact on child health requires a multi-faceted approach. Governments and policymakers must prioritise the implementation of stricter air quality standards and regulations. Investing in cleaner energy sources and promoting sustainable transportation can also help reduce air pollution levels.
Furthermore, raising awareness among parents, healthcare professionals, and the general public about the dangers of air pollution is crucial. Educating individuals on how to protect themselves and their children from exposure to pollutants can make a significant difference in safeguarding child health.
In conclusion, air pollution poses a grave threat to the health of children, especially those who are most vulnerable. It is imperative that we take immediate action to reduce air pollution levels and protect the well-being of our future generations.