AIDS and malaria are often in the limelight when international health organizations discuss distressing issues in Africa. The continent is plagued by a far more menacing killer, though. According to a new research, air pollution is responsible for most the premature deaths on the continent.

Sub-Saharan dust is the leading cause of air pollution in Africa, which is responsible for the most premature deaths in the continent. Credit: Pixabay.

Sub-Saharan dust is the leading cause of air pollution in Africa, which is responsible for the most premature deaths in the continent. Credit: Pixabay.

The silent killer

In 2015, lower respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis replaced AIDS as the leading cause of death in Africa, being responsible for cutting short roughly one million African lives.

Susanne Bauer and colleagues at the Earth Institute have now found a new dark lord. The researchers employed a model which took into account satellite imagery of particle matter to create a map of where burning was taking place, then fed this data into another economic model which estimates how many lives each type of air pollution shortens.

In sub-Saharan Africa, burning crop residues is common practice, proving a cheap and readily available cleanup method. On the flipside, doing so releases a lot of smoke. The most worrisome part are the particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) which can easily infiltrate our airways where they can wreak havoc. High levels of particle matter in the air have been associated with a larger risk of lung cancer, heart attack, lung disease, stroke, heart disease, and more.

Bauer says that her team’s work suggests air pollution kills 1.2 million Africans yearly. AIDS, which is far more famous killer, is responsible for 760,000 premature African deaths.

“I think it’s very striking that air pollution’s overall mortality is the same order of magnitude as AIDS,” said Bauer in a statement. “There are a lot of initiatives to fight AIDS, to fight malaria, but air pollution is certainly under-addressed on that continent.”

A surprising find was that it wasn’t man-made air pollutants but instead the natural kind that were responsible for the most deaths — and by far. Saharan dust which is carried by winds all over the continent is responsible for roughly one million premature deaths on the continent. Industrial and urban emissions were the second deadliest source of air pollution, claiming 324,000 lives per year, according to the team’s estimates. Gases emitted by vehicles and factories—such as ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and sulfates—as well as soot and organic carbon were the most common. This kind of man-made pollution ranks between meningitis and malaria as a leading cause of death in Africa.

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Bauer says that society is not nearly aware of how dangerous air pollution is, likely because it gets far less press and attention than more dramatic health risks, like AIDS. Curbing air pollution won’t be easy either but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Her team estimates that measures aimed at cutting particle matter levels from the atmosphere like improving land management techniques, distributing masks, and informing people about the dangers of dust storms could save 350,000 lives yearly.

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