By Rawlance Ndejjo, academician
On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, apart from the exchange of fists and chairs that took place in Uganda’s parliament, something important and undoubtedly more important happened.
On the day, several countries around the world, Uganda inclusive, came together to commemorate the World Environmental Health Day (WEHD) under the theme ‘indoor and outdoor air quality’. To understand how important this is; well, simply hold your breath as you read till the end of this article.
The quality of the air around you whether on the streets where we walk or within your nice living room is very important. In fact, currently, air pollution is said to be the major public health issue of this generation and is linked with several illnesses such as respiratory infections, lung cancer, poor birth outcomes and diseases of the heart and blood vessels which all significantly contribute to deaths. The World Health organization (WHO) estimates that about 6 million people deaths each year are linked to air pollution.
Unfortunately, the world’s air is continuously becoming more polluted and not much is being done to reverse this trend. Recent research done in Kampala and Jinja districts found that the air in these two towns was polluted with levels of some dangerous pollutants (particulate matter 2.5) over 5 times the cut off limit recommended by the WHO.
What is causing this pollution you may ask? Sources include vehicles on our roads (most of which are quite old thus higher pollution), small and large scale industries, burning of waste, construction works all concentrated within an area of about 190 square kilometers – the case of Kampala - for several hours a day. Within the household, the most common source is the use of dirty fuels (firewood and charcoal) for cooking and possibly smoking.
Urgent actions are therefore needed to tackle this problem. We need to invest in understanding how big the problem is so that we can deal with it appropriately. The Government of Uganda deserves credit for passing the Tobacco Control Act 2015 but the next step should be implementation of this very nice piece of legislation. Deliberate measures are also required to improve public transport systems within the city and reduce vehicle population. Also, non-complaint industries should be dealt with accordingly.
Moreover, since the use of dirty fuels is rampant within the country, government and private companies need to work out ways to make cleaner fuels such as gas cheaper. The price of gas is said to be very high in the country comparably to elsewhere but such a trend could be reversed with increased demand. This step would also further save our environment.
As Pope Francis once remarked that "We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!” May we take steps to ensure that preserve our air quality not just for our own benefit but also for our great grandchildren.
So, as legislators were busy turning the August house in to a wrestling ring, the Makerere University Environmental Health Students’ Association and the Environmental Health Workers Association of Uganda were spearheading the commemoration of this important day while discussing strategies to mitigate indoor and outdoor air pollution. The other activities for the day included public lectures, essay writing competitions, mass media talk shows and a march.
Environmental Health as a profession deals with control of factors in our environment that can harm health, such as air pollution. The other components of environmental health include water, sanitation and hygiene; food safety; housing; other forms of pollution – water and soil, and occupational health.
The writer is an Environmental Health Scientist at Makerere University School of Public Health.