Tackling Severe Air Pollution in Africa

An atmospheric scientist has been working to measure and mitigate a longtime health crisis afflicting much of the continent.

Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
September 20, 2023

This summer delivered brutal conditions to countries throughout Africa. In Morocco, for example, for the first time on record, temperatures topped 120 degrees F (50 C). It demonstrated once again the injustices of climate change: regions that produce the fewest greenhouse gases suffer the most from global warming.

Of the 1.4 billion people who live on the African continent, nearly half—43 percent—do not have electricity. As a result, many people must rely on burning wood, charcoal and, in some cases, even garbage to warm their homes and to cook. Many people drive old, used cars imported from Europe and Japan. Often, these vehicles are not equipped to adhere to emissions standards.

“The engines might not be very up to date. The catalytic converters might have been taken out. Also, the fuel quality is not up to the same standard as in the U.S. or Europe,” said Daniel Westervelt, an atmospheric scientist at the Columbia Climate School‘s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. For these reasons, air quality in much of Africa is a severe health problem. According to the World Health Organization, the combined effects of ambient and household air pollution are associated with 6.7 million premature deaths annually.

Man stands in front of a podium and audience next to a panel of professionals
Daniel Westervelt speaking at the East Africa Air Quality Management Training Workshop at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. (Courtesy Daniel Westervelt)

Westervelt, who is also affiliated with the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and an advisor to the U.S. State Department, is working on a comprehensive effort to reduce the threat. In August, he helped deliver a State Department-funded training mission to East Africa, teaching a one-week air quality science and management course for about 100 attendees from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. The training, which took place at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, focused on creating a system of collaboration to measure air quality and engage in future research. It also addressed climate change and the range of impacts African countries could experience in the immediate future and the long term.

Over recent years, Westervelt and his colleagues have set up air-quality sensors in a half-dozen African nations. “The air quality is very poor in many of these major East African cities like Nairobi, and they don’t have a lot of data. You need to have the evidence,” said Westervelt. “They also don’t have the regulatory policies and tools to improve the issue and bring down the pollution. So, [we provided] training on what approaches have worked in other places like the U.S.”

Westervelt points out that emissions controls on vehicles and industry have produced measurably cleaner, safer air in the United States. With data, training and political will, African nations can also take action, he said.

Westervelt and his colleagues provided hands-on training on how to assemble and use inexpensive air sensors, and how to access and analyze the data. Among the instruments provided was a research-grade sensor to measure deadly fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, which can lodge in people’s lungs. This instrument remains in Kenya, where Westervelt and a team are collaborating with local participants on setting up a field station to continue collecting data. The next step for community leaders is to draft an air-quality improvement plan.

“The city of Nairobi is going to be the primary author. I’ll be supervising, providing help where I can, and providing the data,” Westervelt said.