Air You Breathe in Nairobi May Kill You, Says Research

March 19, 2015

By Verah Okeyo, Daily Nation

The air residents of Nairobi breathe is poisonous and can cause serious ailments including heart and lung diseases as well as cancer, a study has revealed.

The amount of cancer-causing elements (carcinogenic material) in the air within the city is as high as 105 microgrammes per cubic metre, the study released on Thursday says.

This means the quality of air Nairobians breathe is 10 times more dangerous if the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) threshold of 20 micrograms per cubic metre for key air pollutants is anything to go by.

Exposure contributes the most to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, says the study the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology conducted in partnership with Gothenburg University in Sweden and Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The economic survey of 2014 indicated that respiratory infections caused the highest number of illnesses in Kenya in 2013 with 14,823,864 cases being reported.

Lead researcher Prof Michael Gitari listed Ngara, Thika Road, Ronald Ngala and Tom Mboya Street as areas with the highest risk due to crowding. This is where the highest presence of  health-damaging matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less is found.
Particulate matter is a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. They include minerals, dust and water.

Particles such as dust and gases that are small are the most lethal because they can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs.

The poor quality of air has been attributed to emissions from vehicles which release dangerous levels of the pollutants into the atmosphere.

“We experience five times more health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, cancers including as the lungs because air pollution is linear to health impacts”, Prof Gitari, a nuclear physicist at UoN, told a forum on the state of quality of air in Nairobi.


Figures another organisation, the African Population Health Research Centre (APHRC), presented at the forum in Nairobi, show the level of pollution is worrying in slums such as Korogocho and Viwandani. APHRC monitors the quality of air in Nairobi regularly.

A researcher at APHRC Kanyiva Muindi said air pollution indoors in the two slums was as high as 100 times, with the residents exposed to life threatening gases.

Experts at the forum blamed government agencies for failing to control pollution. They accused government officials of politicising the issue and ignoring warnings regarding the quality of air people breathe.

“The issue is so severe and not even the people living in the posh estates can escape the dangers. Scientists can be accused of blowing things out of proportion but this pollution is widespread to an extent that nobody will be immune to the negative impacts on health”, Prof Gitari said.

The various regulations on the environment in Kenya do not have any component to deal with air pollution, the forum observed.

Nairobi County Environment Executive Evans Ondieki blamed residents for the poor state of affairs as far as air pollution in the city is concerned.

“People have this desire to get rich quickly and at any cost and that is where we have problems,” Mr Ondieki said.

Even though participants laid blame at his doorstep, Mr Ondieki exonerated his department saying: “ Some people eat too much and dump a lot of waste without any regard to the environment. We drive badly in the town causing pollution.”

He called on the residents to change their attitudes and adopt best practices to conserve the environment.

A researcher at Colombia University, Ms Jaqueline Klopp, said poor people in the slums should not be blamed for causing pollution. “These people are neglected and are not offered government services, including sanitation. They should not be blamed.”

UoN has been conducting regular routine air quality measurements since 2008, mostly supported by foreign institutions of higher learning.