Alarm on air pollution - WHO to our rescue?

Mon, 10 Jun 2019 Source: Vicky Wireko

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We heard it right. Call it a wake-up call but the news calling for urgent action to tackle increasing air pollution in the country came from the World Health Organization (WHO) at a press briefing in Accra on May 17, 2019. The urgency of the call, according to the WHO Technical Officer of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, was so that we would make amends to contain the impact of air pollution on health and the climate.

The WHO estimates that air pollution from all sources caused about 28,000 deaths in 2016 with over 4,000 of them being children under the age of 16. In the Greater-Accra Region alone, 2,000 deaths were allegedly reported in 2017. The alarming bit of the news is that increasing air quality in the Greater-Accra Region cost the economy of the country, an estimated $550 million annually due to poor health, increased health cost and low productivity. Should managers of the economy not be worried as they look visibly for cost savings for the national purse?

Shockingly, the inference of the information from the WHO is simply that the air pollution levels we have experienced are per our own doing. We have come thus far through improper land use, excessive fumes from vehicles on our roads, solid waste which we have failed to manage effectively and lack of green spaces in our communities, among others. Through our actions and inactions, we have tackled our environs haphazardly not with sustainability in mind and therefore cared very little about the responsible management of same.

Natural environment

One only needs to travel a few kilometres out of our cities and towns and the beauty of our country reveals itself. There is no reason why our country could not be a safe healthy haven looking at the beauty of our forests, so green and virgin, organic food crops coming out of these forest areas, valleys and mountains laced with beautiful water bodies, at least until illegal mining unleashed water pollution on us and abundant sunshine all year round.

For any environmentalists, our countryside would have passed for nature tourism offering health and wellness but for our penchant for the misuse of what nature has bestowed us with. Coupled with a lack of supervision and strict law enforcement, many opportunities to smell fresh and natural goodness have eluded us.

Should it, therefore, be surprising that the WHO is sounding a notice of caution? It is definitely a wake-up call because every day on our roads, one encounters vehicles with their exhausts discharging thick black smoke with poisonous fumes from a distance away and we take them as normal because those vehicles have been certified by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) as road worthy.

Solid waste management

As for solid waste management, eyes and ears have been turned away for a long time and are forced to assume that the matter gets attention only when there is a public health crisis like the outbreak of cholera or any communicable disease. Not until then, one tends to assume all is well. Our cities and towns are expanding rapidly to the extent that every space of land has been sold for development. Planning of our cities and towns has been poorly managed to neglect the need for open spaces for greeneries, parks and gardens.

With the alert coming from the WHO, the time has come for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies to quicken their steps and work with allied agencies such as DVLA, the transport unions, town and country planning to attend to and fix some of the easy to manage and less expensive contributory factors to air pollution in our communities.

Experts have warned that some of the stroke, cardiovascular, respiratory and lung diseases we have around are all air pollution related. To some of us, this may be virgin news. However, with specialists at the EPA, the Assemblies and related agencies, one would want to see proactive and urgent joint collaboration between them and action taken to arrest the sources of air pollution in our environment.

Helping as citizens to protect the public purse also means that we should talk about and get fixed the negligence of public officials whose actions and inactions at work are costing the economy a whopping $550 million annually in just the area of air pollution.

Change of attitude is not just about stopping indiscriminate garbage disposal or open defecation. It is also about a change of attitude at work by some public officers whose neglect of duty is impacting heavily on national health spending.

Columnist: Vicky Wireko