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Cheap Pollution Monitor Aims to Help World’s Cities

A new, low-cost tool backed by the United Nations may help developing-world cities control pollution that kills millions each year.

A toxic haze shrouds the Nairobi skyline. Buses spew out gray clouds of diesel exhaust at every stoplight. The city’s notorious traffic jams add dangerous gases and particles to the air.

The pollution is a direct threat to Tabitha Wangeci’s health. She is dealing with asthma in one of the city’s “informal settlements,” a polite word for slums. With the little money she makes selling charcoal, she can’t always afford her asthma medication.

“My chest is always blocked, like my ribs are dried up,” she said. “I run out of oxygen, then I start breathing heavily.”

Pollution problem

She’s far from alone.

“Many Nairobi residents are exposed on a regular basis to air pollution with potentially serious long-term implications,” said Kenyan environment secretary Judi Wakhungu at a recent U.N. Environment Program press conference.

Buses and other vehicles are the top source of pollution in Nairobi. (Amos Wangwa/VOA News)

Buses and other vehicles are the top source of pollution in Nairobi. (Amos Wangwa/VOA News)

For a quarter century, lung specialist Dr. Ndambuki Mboloi has been seeing patients at Kenyatta National Hospital. A World Asthma Day certificate of appreciation hangs on the wall in his cramped office.

Mboloi says the toxic haze that shrouds Nairobi raises rates of asthma, heart disease, lung disease and airway infections.

“Judging by the number of patients that we see who present with respiratory problems, it may be getting worse,” he said.

Information gap

Outdoor air pollution kills an estimated 3.7 million people per year around the world, according to the World Health Organization.

But in Nairobi, as in much of the developing world, there is little information on exactly how bad the problem is - which actually creates problems of its own.

For example, Nairobi’s air pollution law “focuses a lot on limiting emissions from industries, while the number-one polluters are actually vehicles, waste burning and indoor air pollution,” said UNEP atmospheric chemist George Mwaniki.

“The lack of data is contributing to policies that really do not address the problem,” he added.

New tool

But UNEP hopes to change that, with the help of a new air quality monitor that measures levels of most major pollutants for about one one-hundredth of the cost of the standard equipment.

“The technology we’re launching... is a way to measure that very accurately and very cheaply,” said UNEP chief scientist Jacqueline McGlade.

McGlade said cities can build an effective network of monitors at a price they can afford. Policymakers can identify the sources of pollution and target policies accordingly.

Blueprints for the monitors will be available for free. Environment secretary Wakhungu said it could be manufactured locally, helping Kenya develop its technology industry.

“Information isn’t enough, but it’s enough to allow people to act,” McGlade said.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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