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Air pollution in Nigeria: Causes, Effects and Solutions

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A brief review of air pollution in Nigeria and how cities around the world are taking bold and urgent actions to tackle poor air quality


• On average, people living around the Niger Delta Region are likely to “lose nearly 6 years of life expectancy” if the air pollution situation around the area is not controlled, the latest (2021) Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report has revealed.

• Air pollution is second only to HIV/AIDS in terms of impact on life expectancy in Nigeria, the University of Chicago’s AQLI report also found.

• More than 114,000 people died from air pollution in Nigeria in 2017, the top in Africa – HEI & IHME updated estimates

• Onitsha, a port city in southern Nigeria, had the world’s worst air (PM10 pollutants) in 2016 – WHO

• Kano had Africa’s worse air pollution in 2018 – IQAir Visual & Greenpeace

• Nigeria’s air quality monitoring agency does not issue air quality alerts even when air quality levels are expected to adversely impact health

• Nigeria has a mortality rate for air pollution of 307.4 for every 100,000 people – WHO

• Nigeria has annual mean concentrations of 46.3 μg/m3 of PM2.5 pollutants, 9 times (September 2021 WHO update) above the WHO guidelines for outdoor air quality.

While many low-and-middle-income countries are tightening pollution controls to reduce public exposure to the toxic air hanging over their cities, the air pollution levels in Nigeria remains dangerously high with no relief in sight.

The air pollution levels in Nigerian cities, including Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, and in particular Onitsha, a port city on the bank of the Niger River in the south, are still at health-damaging levels.

Onitsha recorded the world’s worst levels of PM10 (particles of less than 10 micrometers) air pollutants in 2016 with an annual mean concentration of 594 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3 ). This was nearly 40 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) annual guideline of 15 μg/m3 for PM10.1


Air pollution was responsible for about a million premature deaths in Africa in 2016.2

Major sources of air pollution in Nigeria include tailpipe exhaust from cars and trucks, smoke from the open burning of residential trash, diesel generators, road dust, industry, and soot from the use of biomass-fuelled cookstoves indoors.

The 2018 World Air Quality Report Region & City PM2.5 Ranking by IQAir and Greenpeace ranked Nigeria the 10th most polluted country in the world, with an estimated average PM2.5 concentrations of 44.8μg/m3. The report also ranked Kano in Nigeria the most polluted city in Africa.

According to updated figures from the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME), more than 64,000 people died from household air pollution in Nigeria in 2017. Mainly from the burning of solid fuels such as charcoal and wood for cooking in open fires and leaky stoves.3

Nigeria’s annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 level is dangerously high.

The country’s air contains more than four times as many of the deadly PM2.5 pollutants as the WHO guidelines for outdoor air quality (46.3 μg/m3 compared with the WHO’s annual guideline of 5 μg/m3 ).4

PM2.5s are microscopic particles of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter which can clog human lungs. They are linked to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Nigeria has a mortality for air pollution of 307.4 for every 100,000 people, the second worst in all of Africa.

More people die from air pollution in Nigeria than in South Africa, Kenya, and Angola, combined.5

Air pollution is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide, causing about 24% of all adult deaths from heart disease, 29% from lung cancer, 25% from stroke, and 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the WHO estimates show.6

The recently updated estimates by the HEI and the IHME show that more than 114,000 deaths in Nigeria in 2017 were due to air pollution. This was the highest in all of Africa.10


Air Pollution in Nigeria


The above graph shows Nigeria’s air pollution-related deaths between 1990 and 2017.

Despite the decline from 2000, poor outdoor air quality remains a significant health risk in Nigeria, and associated with thousands of premature deaths annually.

The above plotted mortality estimates is the highest in Africa in the HEI database.


Indoor Air Pollution in Nigeria


The above trends show indoor air pollution related-deaths in Nigeria between 1990 and 2017. It has been on the decline since 2000 but remains one of the highest in the world.

What are some recent research findings on air pollution?

 A new study published in the journal Nature Communications  in September 2019 has found air pollution particles (black carbons) on the foetal side of human placentas, showing that even unborn babies are not spared from exposure to the deadly particles found in air pollution. 

Primary sources of black carbons include emissions from cars, charcoal and wood cook stoves.

 A newly published study (August 20, 2019) in the PLOS Biology suggests a link between exposure to environmental pollution (such as air pollution) and an increase in the rate of psychiatric disorders in both the US and Denmark – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

• According to a recently published study in the American Journal of Physiology – Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, even low level of air pollution exposure can have an adverse effects on the lungs.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions Carnegie Mellon University have found that poor air quality in the United States may be linked with early deaths and reduced life expectancy.

• A growing body of evidence links exposure to air pollution to pregnancy and birth-related problems, including preterm births. More than 3 million premature births across 183 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, could be linked to air pollution, a study has found.7

• A study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives estimates that around 15,000 preterm births in the United States in 2010 could be attributed to exposure to high PM2.5 pollutants. 8

• A new study of more than 300,000 people by the European Lung Foundation has found that air pollution accelerates aging of the lungs and increases the risk of developing chronic lung diseases. See the study in the European Respiratory Journal here.

• A new study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health has found that exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) during pregnancy and after birth is linked with reduced fundamental cognitive abilities, such as working memory and executive attention.

• Another study also estimates that around 449,000 infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 could be linked to air pollution.9

• According to a new WHO report on Air pollution and children health, more than 90% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years are exposed to PM2.5 levels above recommended limits. About 600,000 children died in 2016 from air pollution (mainly from acute lower respiratory infections), the report reveals.

The new report confirms the findings of other studies: pregnant women who are exposed to polluted air are likely to experience pregnancy and birth related-issues including preterm births. Poor air quality also impacts children’s neurodevelopment and cognitive ability. 

“Air Pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected.” says Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO.

Exposure to PM2.5 varies across countries.

Below are some countries in the West Africa sub-region with high annual PM2.5 exposure levels.

PM2.5 Annual Mean Levels West Africa ATCMASK.COM
Constructed by ATCMASK.COM with data from WHO

See also: Videos and Photos of Agbogbloshie, Ghana

Agbogbloshie – A short mobile film

Air pollution is linked to about 7 million premature deaths worldwide every year, including 600,000 children. Poorer countries in Asia and Africa are the worst impacted.11

Many developing countries are not measuring the quality of the air they breathe. Information on outdoor PM2.5 was only available in 8 of 47 countries in Africa.12  It appears only Senegal has submitted the most recent air quality data (2017) to WHO’s 2018 database on PM10 and PM2.5.13

High-income countries, particularly those in the Americas, Europe, and part of the Western Pacific region, have the lowest air pollution levels. 

How are cities around the world tackling air pollution?

Many developing cities are racing to limit air pollution levels in urban areas. When the Chinese Government decided to control air pollution levels during the 2008 Olympic Games, researchers in a study of Beijing children before, during and after the Games observed significant lower pollution levels during the period of the Games. This shows that interventions by city authorities could bring significant relief for urban dwellers.

Improved cooking stoves (Patsari) are showing reduction in respiratory symptoms in rural Mexico, another study found.

The city of London in 2018 introduced a daily special tax (Toxicity (T) Charge) of £10, on top of other charges, for the most polluting vehicles entering the city. Madrid recently banned old cars in its city centers. Paris and other European cities also plans to ban diesel cars by 2025. German cities have already started implementing limits on polluting cars.

Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.

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