I have taken extreme liberties with the anguished cry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrator in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for good reason. Had that traumatised and glittering-eyed character of one of the world’s best-known narrative poems undertaken his doomed voyage in the 21st and not, presumably, the 19th Century, then chanced to be blown ashore in Lagos, he might, I think, have approved of this rendering of his unfathomable terror.

With every of his crewmates dead and he condemned to roam the seas alone as punishment for the unconscionable act (“a hellish thing,” in his own words) of killing a benevolent albatross — in other words, cruelty to nature — his was the supreme irony of dying in the midst of plenty; hence his cry, “water, water every where nor any drop to drink.” But I exaggerate because it is clear to me that we are getting dangerously close to a similar ordeal as the ancient mariner’s with regard to air, another vital element. Lagos, quite literally, is fast becoming an impossible place to breathe.

The dangerous effects of air pollution are indisputable: the scientific view is that it causes serious cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Which can cause death through lung cancer, pneumonia, asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including bronchitis and emphysema), while also increasing the risk factor in diabetes and heart patients. As is often the case, infants and the elderly with insufficiently developed or weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable.

Of course, air pollution is not a Lagos problem but Nigeria’s as a whole. In fact, it is a global problem, given that ultimately all of earth’s inhabitants breathe the same air. Those immediately exposed to bad air may suffer more in the short term, but soon enough what goes round comes round to imperil biological life everywhere. But I focus on Lagos in this essay because it is my favourite city, even though I have visited and even resided in a few of the world’s most storied cities. And, also, partly on the basis of personal experience; of which, more presently.

It is true that many around the world, especially in Europe and America, consider China as a literal pollution nuclear bomb waiting to detonate and cause an environmental Armageddon. But as The Economist of London shows in its cover story of 10 August 2013, China may in fact be well ahead of Europe and America in cleaning up its phenomenally fouled air. Quite remarkable is the sheer amounts of money ($275 billion over the next five years, twice the size of the annual defence budget) that China is devoting to the urgent task of improving air quality. Its commitment to clean and more efficient alternative energy sources to coal and fossil fuel has already made it the leader in solar panel manufacturing.

Needless to say, Nigeria is not remotely close to the scale of industrial activity that makes China the factory of the world. Still, when it comes to the burning of fossil fuel, the chief source of air pollution in Nigeria, Lagos, I suspect, will top Shanghai. Unregulated emissions from the diesel and petrol engines of millions upon millions of cars, buses, trucks and generators lead to astronomically high levels of carbon and sulphur oxides and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. With an energy corporation formerly known as NEPA or Never Expect Power Always/At All, but which lately became PHCN or Problem Has Changed its Name, Nigeria, and so Lagos, enjoys the dubious distinction of the generator capital of the world.

Until recently, I did not know that it was vehicular and generator emission that made me ever so miserable in Lagos. I am a mildly asthmatic allergy sufferer, and just last month it dawned on me that I tend to have my worst breathing, sneezing, runny and itchy-eyes moments whenever I have been more directly exposed to densely polluted air. Such as when in traffic; particularly, when caught for a while behind vehicles pumping black clouds of petrochemical poison into the air. Or during prolonged exposure to the fumes of generators. Double wahala then: noise and air pollution!

According to the World Health Organisation, outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 1.3 million deaths worldwide annually, mostly among inhabitants of poor countries. But WHO may have understated the figure. A Cornell University study, led by Professor David Pimentel, finds that as many as 3 million people die from air pollution a year. Even more worrisome, environmental degradation contributes to the malnourishment and susceptibility to diseases of 3.7 billion people.

By reducing particulate matter (in the 10 micron diameter category) from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, says WHO, deaths related to poor air quality can be reduced by about 15 percent.  Yet, the PM10 for Lagos is estimated at 122.3 and the average for Nigeria is 123.6! Given that as individuals we cannot control our exposure to polluted air, government at the local, state and federal levels must begin to take serious and urgent steps to sanitise our air (as well as water and soil).  Lagos, a mega-city that has, under Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, begun to take itself seriously, can no longer push air quality to the back-burner of its priorities. Breathing should be as free of health hazards as good air.

 

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