Derick Mbugua, 46, has been a bus driver in the Capital City Nairobi for the past 20 years. All this while, Mbugua has been operating on the Rongai-Nairobi route terminating at the railway bus stop.
At the busy railway bus stop, tens of vehicles drop and pick passengers up every minute leaving behind a trail of pollution, both air and noise.
Surprisingly, for Mbugua and many of his colleague drivers at the railway’s bus park, pollution caused by emissions from the hundreds of vehicles that enter the park daily seems not to bother them.
“It is hard to tell if our vehicles are polluting the air or not, because we don’t have tools and knowledge to measure that,” Mbugua said.
Oblivious of the health risks staring at them, drivers, passengers, and traders in the city operating in areas with heavy vehicular activities go on with their daily duties unmoved.
Ignorance or lack of knowledge?
Seline Akoth, 38, sells drinking water, cigarettes and soda at the railway bus stage and says feeding her two children is a priority to her and not worrying about polluted air.
“What matters to me is what I make in a day and not how the air is polluted. Never had any problem with my breathing for the 8 years I have been operating from here,” Akoth said amid laughter.
Akoth spends at least 40 hours weekly at the busy bus stage.
At many bus terminuses in Nairobi, as drivers wait to pick and drop passengers or when in traffic, their engines are left running leading to more carbon emissions into the air.
The particles are measured in microns, with 10 microns or less being referred to as PM 10, and those of 2.5 microns as PM 2.5.
In Nairobi, air pollution concentration is 1.5 times way beyond the recommended World Health Organization (WHO) threshold, with the main pollutant being the PM2.5. Aerosol and black carbon fine particulates from fossil fuel combustion are considered the leading air pollution in Nairobi.
Much of the air pollution in Nairobi comes from sources related to the combustion of certain materials, and the mass movement of people and goods, and large number of vehicles, including cars, motorbikes, and trucks.
The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) estimates that Nairobi will have an estimated 1.5 million vehicles by the year 2030.
At the busy Wakulima market, rotting filth is a common denominator within the overcrowded market but for traders, what matters most is making money.
With an estimated 3000 people trading at the market, the pungent smell that welcomes you at the entrance of the market is a clear indication of a heavily populated area.
Onesmus Githingi, a member of the wakulima market committee agrees that air pollution at the market needs urgent attention.
“Whenever it rains, you will feel some strong smell that is not normal. The delayed collection of decomposing garbage is the biggest cause of pollution in this market,” Githingi said.
The Effects of polluted air
Dr Sheldon Wanjala, a pulmonologist consultant based in Nairobi, says poor air quality is at the heart of many common health issues, such as asthma, heart diseases lung infections, breathing difficulties, among others.
“Poor air pollution is also associated with an increased rate of miscarriages, lower birth weight and a higher likelihood of birth defects occurring” Dr. Wanjala explained.
He explains that air pollution is also associated with lung and throat cancer, damage to blood vessels and can cause damage to the livers and kidneys, as well as affecting reproductive health.
According to WHO PM2.5 air pollution in Nairobi has caused an estimated deaths of 500 lives since January 1, 2021, and has cost the city an estimated US$78 million in economic losses.
Sammy Simiyu, a Public Health Specialist at Nairobi Metropolitan Services reveals that cases of upper respiratory tract infections in Nairobi County have doubled in the last four years; from 379,250 in 2017 to 768,415 in 2021.
According to Simiyu about 124 deaths in every 100,000 are due to air pollution.
“About 22 per cent of neonatal deaths are caused by air pollution. The menace has long term effects on human health such as cancer risks, central nervous system diseases, cardiovascular diseases as well as some impacts on one’s liver,” Simiyu said.
According to Simiyu, short term effects include frequent headaches, coughing, pneumonia, bronchitis and even skin irritation.
Nairobi is home to some 4.3 million people.
Nairobi County Finding Lasting Solutions
The Nairobi City County government and partners are investing in technology to collect and analyze data that can then be used in providing solutions to the problem of air pollution in the city.
Low-cost PM 2.5 monitors have been deployed in various parts of the city.
Gideon Lubisia, the embedded systems and network support engineer for international operations at AirQo says stakeholders can use the data collected by the monitors to formulate regulations that can help in controlling air pollution.
“You can actually tell how a city is being managed based on their air quality,” he says.
Maurice Kavai, Deputy Director, Air Quality and Climate Change Nairobi County Government says the county is alive to the extent of air pollution in the city and appropriate measures are being taken to manage the situation.
“We have so much being done in this regard from policy formulation, development of a legal framework, collaborating with partners and even research,” Kavai said.
Kavai notes that public education is also key towards controlling air pollution in Nairobi.
“When we have an informed population, it becomes easy to control things and involving the public in what we are doing is key towards ensuring that city residents’ breath clean air,” he concluded.