Ambient Air, CANCER-CHECK: Ambient Air, Mental Health Check

AIRBORNE: SUBURBAN

I stood at the balcony of my room to catch a glimpse of downtown Nairobi.

My hotel room was located on some upper floor.

My employer had sponsored me for some seminar in the city and this would be my ‘humble’ abode for a few days.

My sleep had been delayed by the drama going on in the city streets…

The hustle and bustle of the sleepless city made me realize one thing…

That more and more apartments and flats will be constructed near the central business district.

The government of Kenya has already started a massive urban apartment construction project as part of fulfilling its manifesto in the name of affordable housing.

Some of these apartments will be located in suburban neighbourhoods overlooking the city of Nairobi such as Pangani.

LIVING DOWNTOWN

As an urbanite born and raised in Kenya’s second city, Mombasa, I am not oblivious to the benefits urban life brings…

Closeness to government bureaucracy…

Exposure to what’s new and fashionable…

Exposure to diversity…

Exposure to opportunities and…

Exposure to air pollutants.

AIR POLLUTION

The thing with suburban air is it seems so still yet carries with it a potency.

A mix of motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emmissions and possibly rubbish smoke may sometimes punctuate the air we breath depending on the locality.

Urban air pollution is therefore a factor of many ingredients among which particluates play a crucial role.

PARTICULATES

We might see particulates as the thick smoke released by vehicle exhausts.

Interestingly, these being the larger ones are more visible than the most minute ones released especially by diesel exhaust and industry.

PM 2.5 as they are called are particulates measuring 2.5 microns in diameter on average.

And what makes them significant to urban air pollution isn’t their content but their size.

Their minute nature allows them to efficiently penetrate our respiratory systems bringing about a range of respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis.

Though PM 2.5 particulates might be released at a single point such as around an industry, their lightweight nature allow them to be carried off for miles.

Urban air is therefore unclean air courtesy of motor vehicle exhausts and industrial activity.

Continuous long term exposure to particulate matter is known to lead to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

However, this air pollutant is increasingly being associated with another stressful health condition.

MENTAL HEALTH DETERIORATION

From dementia to depression

From neurocognitive disabilities to anxiety disorders…

Urban airborne pollutants such as particulate matter are a major cause of concern when it comes to mental health.

And the effects get more defined in people who live near industries releasing particulate laced emmissions or those living near highways.

Mental health deterioration due to air pollution translates to disability adjusted life years (DALYS); a parameter used to measure the reduction in productivity of people undergoing mental stress.

This is besides it exerting additional financial pressure due to treatment costs.

For example, a research in China in 2018 related every one standard deviation rise in PM 2.5 concentration to a 6.67% increase in mental illness (including depression).

This translated to an annual increase in medical expense by 22.88 Billion US Dollars.

Though the urban challenges of mental health are great to behold, several strategies are key in addressing them.

Urban Ventilation

Ventilation of homes, offices and spaces in the urban set up are crucial in this regard.

Architects, engineers and interior designers have a cut-out opportunity to ensure that urban indoor spaces not only look good but have good and adequate air flow to reduce exposure to urban pollution.

Air Filters

But there is also space for innovators in air filter technologies targetting upmarket building owners.

R&D in different materials for air filtration targeting specific pollutants such as particulates is an opportunity waiting for willing innovators even though several international players might be in this space.

Perhaps sourcing and testing for locally available materials in air filtration applications would be the first step followed by seeking for financing if the business model makes sense.

Diet

Diet also plays a key role in guaranteeing good health for the suburban dweller.

Regular intake of brightly colored vegetables and fruits is a good place to start.

The bright colors in such foods symbolyses the presence of unique food supplements called antioxidants which neutralize toxic stuff carried by air pollutants.

A good diet should also be accompanied with good physical activity such as exercising.

Urban gardening is also increasingly being embraced as a means of reducing urban stress levels while growing food in the process.

Legislation

But lastly, lobby groups and activists must press on for legislation.

Credit must be given to the Nairobi county government for trying to institute a ban on public service vehicles accessing the CBD which would have reduced urban airborne pollution considerably.

However, several factors needed to be considered such as a means to ferry commuters from the outskirts of the city to the city centre.

More work needs to be done to curtail harmful emmissions from industries and this is one space our legislators and enforcement organisations could play a role in.

IN CONCLUSION

More seriousness is needed in tackling urban air pollution since it creates other communal problems such as mental health deterioration.

And specific focus must be put on particluate matter (PM 2.5).

We can all do something about it a particle at a time.

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