At ten elementary schools on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, newly installed air-quality monitors are quietly collecting data on the level of particulate matter in the atmosphere. The schools are part of a project launched in February to study how air pollution affects children’s health, in an effort to address a major public-health gap in sub-Saharan Africa.
Globally, air pollution causes more deaths than any other environmental hazard1. But there are little data on its health effects in sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s hard to draw any lessons from similar studies in Europe or North America, because much of the air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa comes from a different source — indoor stoves that burn biomass such as charcoal and firewood. The resulting emissions of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sooty ‘black carbon’ “can be hazardous indoors and can also go outside to mix with other sources of pollution”, says Eric Coker, who studies global-health equity in Uganda at the University of California, Berkeley.
Lack of access to health care, low nutrition, and the high prevalence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV leave the region’s population more susceptible to the effects of environmental pollutants, Coker adds. The paucity of data was clear to Kiros Berhane, a biostatistician and a principal investigator with the Eastern African GEOHealth hub, the group running the child-health study in Kampala. The hub, which began conducting research in 2016, is a collaboration between the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. It chose to focus on air pollution after examining gaps in public-health research in the region. “This was the place we could make the biggest contribution,” he says.