Clear the Air for Children!
Almost one in seven children — that’s about 300 million — live in areas where the outdoor air pollution is toxic.
Ever wondered what that looks like?
Immerse yourself in various parts of Nigeria where air pollution is part of an everyday reality for many. We may not have all the answers to the challenges documented here, but we do know that answers to this and many other climate related issues need to be found quickly, before it’s too late.
(Left) Street vendors sell their wares at Oshodi market as commuters make their way home, in heavy traffic and fumes. Both vendors and commuters complain of headaches and trouble breathing as they inhale the toxic fumes from car exhaust as they are stuck in traffic or on the streets.
(Right) Kadija sells pounded yams at Oshodi market. She works at the market every day selling yams and other foods, weaving in and out of traffic as cars stall and emit toxic fumes.
Toxic air causes miscarriages, early delivery, and low birth weight. It contributes to the deaths of more young children every year than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. It can harm the healthy development of children’s brains. It is a drag on economies and societies, already costing as much as 0.3 per cent of global GDP — and rising. And in many parts of the world, it is getting worse.
At a sawmill in Lagos.
It is air pollution. Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable. Their immune systems are weaker. Their brains are still developing.
Above, workers at a sawmill industry walk past burning garbage and sawdust that is later sold as charcoal. Below, women and children collect and carry sawdust that is to be burnt with garbage. Workers at the sawmill often experience breathing problems, coughing, and headaches as the fumes enter their lungs.
“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year — and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs — they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains — and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”
Sara Zanu, 9, carries sawdust at the sawmill. She lives in Makoko, the fishing community on the other side of the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. She crosses the lagoon by canoe everyday with her older sister, Kadija, 14, who also works at the sawmill.
“I would rather be going to school or braiding my friend’s hair. I can do many different designs,” she said.
Instead, she has been working here for the past four years, breathing in the fumes as the sawdust burns.
“I suffer at home. I cough very hard and my chest hurts. Sometimes I cough and black comes on my hand.”
We must all work to meet global air quality guidelines to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children. To achieve this, we need to cut back on fossil fuel combustion and invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
In a fishing community on the Lagos Lagoon.
In Lagos, residents navigate the polluted waters of Makoko, a fishing community mostly made up of structures on stilts above the lagoon, as smoke from nearby houses spill out over the canals.
Vehicle emissions, diesel generators, burning of biomass and garbage and other environmental waste greatly affect the communities water and air quality.
Residents of Makoko rely on fishing to make a living and complain that the fish stock has dwindled in recent years as a result. They also have trouble breathing and many cough out soot on a daily basis.
Dupe Gowon, 10, smokes fish in her home in Makoko, a fishing community on the Lagos Lagoon. She used to go to school but now stays at home to help her mother smoke the fish and later sell it at the nearby market.
“The room can get very hot and the smoke makes it hard to breathe,” she says.
She often goes to bed coughing at night and sometimes feels dizzy but insists that the air is fine.
There is a heavy toll of indoor pollution, commonly caused by use of fuels like coal and wood for cooking and heating, which mostly affects children in low-income, rural areas.
Together, outdoor and indoor air pollution are directly linked to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for almost one in 10 under-five deaths, making air pollution one of the leading dangers to children’s health.
At an abbatoir in Yenagoa.
Ultrafine, airborne pollutants — caused primarily by smoke and fumes — can more easily enter and irritate children’s lungs, causing and exacerbating life-threatening disease. Studies show these tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, causing inflammation, damaging brain tissue, and permanently impairing cognitive development.
In Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, workers carry on different tasks to produce Kanda, a type of smoked meat, at an abattoir. The workers at the slaughterhouse use cow bones, rubber tires, electric wires, aluminum cans and other waste to sustain the flames, making the fumes very dangerous to inhale.
Badamasi Ibrahim, 15, works all day to smoke meat, to later sell at the market.
“I work here because no other job that’s why we are doing it. It’s hard. It’s hot. You see the flame. I have a disturbed chest. My cough is very black.”
Sometimes Badamasi goes to the clinic when he is having trouble breathing or feels sick. The doctor treats him and he goes home or back to work.
Urban children growing up too close to industrial sites, smoldering dumps, and electrical generators that burn biomass fuels like dung … rural children living in unventilated homes where food is prepared on smoking cook stoves … refugee and migrant children staying in tents filled with wood smoke … All these children are breathing in pollutants night and day that endanger their health, threaten their lives, and undermine their futures.
Many of these children are already disadvantaged by poverty and deprivation. Air pollution is yet another threat to their health and wellbeing — and yet another way in which the world is letting them down.
In Bayelsa State.
Children who breathe polluted air are at higher risk of potentially severe health problems — in particular, acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia. UNICEF supports programmes to increase children’s access to quality healthcare, and vaccinate them against conditions like pneumonia.
(Left) In Bayelsa State, Dr. Fufu Yin looks outside the ward of his small clinic.
“It started a few years ago. Everybody was coughing and getting diarrhea. We didn’t know why. Then we heard about the oil spill and realized the effects of gas flaring nearby. Last year I delivered 10 babies in the village. Only four survived. Some of the babies got diarrhea, cholera, others died of pneumonia. We could not save them here. Sometimes we don’t have the right drugs or equipment to treat patients so we have to refer them to the regional hospital. But sometimes it is too late. I’ve been asking for a surgical annex for years now but nothing. There’s been no communal response to the sickness. Everybody is afraid to say anything or really believe that the air and water is bad.”
(Right) The landscape shows a large oil refinery and its proximity to a community.
(Left) A canoe stands motionless in a former river that was destroyed by oil waste as gas smokes from a flare from the refinery behind it.
(Right) Elisabeth Christopher, 26, holds her baby, Debora Christopher, 14 months, in front of her home.
Speaking of the water that used to run in front of her home she said, “it used to be a creek, it used to have running water. We used to fish, we used to drink it. Now we can’t use the water anymore. The company gave us a borehole but the water is still contaminated. We get rash sometimes. The air stinks. The air enters my nose. It affects my chest. My baby coughs and has a runny nose. I want people to remember us from this community. We suffer from this smelly air.”
In Bayelsa State, mangrove trees destroyed by acid rain stand bare in the creeks. Community members have noted that since the gas flaring began, they have felt the intense heat of the gas and rumbling from the underground oil pipes and can’t sleep at night.
Chief Tietie J. Elijah says “We can’t use the water in the river or from the rains anymore. If we collect rain water in a white basin, we can see the black soot on top of it. We shouldn’t even wash our clothes in it let alone drink it. But this is the only water that we have!” “I am talking as an ordinary citizen, as an ordinary father of two children. The best legacy you can leave a child is a clean environment. My father left me green trees. But look at the trees around me, they are turning brown. They are dying. Is this the legacy I am leaving for my children?”
Many people relied on fishing as a livelihood but can no longer fish as the water is contaminated by acid rain and the heat. They notice that their vegetable crops, another main source of revenue in the area, are growing less frequently and what’s left is of very poor quality.
(Right) In Bayelsa State, Goodness Hillary holds a diseased pumpkin fruit in her hands. Since gas flaring began from the facility of an oil company, she says that her crops are hardly growing.
“Before our crops used to grow everywhere. Now you can see they are few and the ones that grow are not looking fine. They are diseased. I can’t sell them at the market. But this is our only job to raise our kids, so we do what we can.”
Learn more: Clear the Air for Children — the first report of its kind, based on satellite imagery — finds that around 2 billion children in total live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds limits as being safe for human health.