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Beyond honking horns: The urgent need for clean air in Lagos


Beyond honking horns: The urgent need for clean air in Lagos


It’s hard to visit Lagos without being struck by its constant buzz. Some might say I’m overstating it, but the city’s noise is undeniable. Known for its ceaseless activity, Lagos is a city that seemingly never rests, where noise is part and parcel of daily life. Yet, as the population grows with people in search of better opportunities, the noise levels, particularly from incessant car and train horns, have become more pronounced.


Excessive honking is commonplace, and the vocal pitches of street vendors add to the urban chorus. However, a more pressing concern than the auditory assault is the issue of air pollution. Air pollution in Lagos, characterized by the presence of harmful substances in the air, poses a grave threat to public health, environmental integrity, and global climate conditions. From personal observations, it’s clear that Lagos suffers from severe air quality issues. Early mornings reveal an atmosphere laden with pollutants.


A significant portion of this pollution is attributed to vehicle emissions; I’ve personally seen buses so engulfed in smoke that it infiltrates the interior, making it hard to breathe. Studies have shown that about 30% of the city’s PM2.5 air pollution is directly related to vehicular traffic, worsened by the use of older vehicles and high-sulphur fuels, coupled with a lack of viable transportation alternatives. With only 1.3 km of intra-city rail per million residents, Lagos lags other global cities in infrastructure, forcing its citizens to spend, on average, 30 hours a week in traffic. Beyond vehicle emissions, Lagos contends with several other pollution sources. The city’s inadequate waste management practices lead to the open burning and unauthorized dumping of garbage, contributing to 9% of its PM2.5 pollution levels.


Of the estimated 14,000-15,000 tonnes of waste collected daily, more than 30% is disposed of improperly, with a significant amount likely incinerated before even being collected. Industrial pollution is another critical issue. Despite housing 70% of Nigeria’s industries, less than 10% of these establishments are equipped with adequate pollution control measures. For instance, metal smelting factories alone account for 9% of the city’s total emissions. Moreover, land clearing by bush burning, responsible for 5% of PM2.5 pollution, is rampant, even though only 30% of Lagos’s land area (51,000 hectares) is under cultivation. 



Distribution of air pollution sources in Lagos 

Source: ScienceDirect, sources of ambient PM2.5 exposure in 96 global cities, 2022. 


In 2019, air pollution was linked to approximately 23,900 premature deaths in Lagos, outnumbering deaths from malaria (191,000) and significantly surpassing those from HIV/AIDS (82,000) on a national scale. By 2021, it was acknowledged by the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) that air pollution had caused over 30,000 premature deaths within the city. In January 2022, LASEPA announced collaborations with the World Bank, the Lagos State Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, and the Lagos Computerised Vehicle Inspection Service to address emissions from vehicles.


Yet, there have been no significant actions taken to reduce air pollution effectively. This lack of progress can be attributed to several factors, including the city’s inadequate road infrastructure, which leads to persistent traffic jams. The widespread use of fossil fuels, with locally sourced petrol containing sulphur levels 200 times above the diesel standards in the United States as reported by the World Bank, exacerbates the situation. Furthermore, a fundamental challenge in combating air quality issues in Lagos stems from Nigeria’s approach to data collection and analysis. The country’s minimal emphasis on empirical evidence and accurate statistics has led to a culture of uncertainty and ignorance, particularly in policy development and implementation. 


Over 3,490 deaths could be prevented in 2040 alone if clean air measures are implemented. 

Source: Lives lost to air pollution since 2000 – Global Burden of Disease, 2019. 


As of January 2024, the Lagos Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) announced that air quality in many areas of Lagos is currently poor. Real-time air quality data from IQAIR shows Lagos’s air pollution index at 152 US AQIs, significantly exceeding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended levels for PM2.5 particles by 13.4 times. PM2.5 particles, which are fine particles produced mainly through combustion, measure 2.5 microns in diameter and consist of various chemical compounds.  Dr. Babatunde Ajayi, Director General of LASEPA, emphasized the critical need for cleaner air across the state to promote health and well-being, highlighting the severe health risks posed by such high levels of pollution. He warned that residents might face respiratory ailments including lung infections, asthma, cystic fibrosis, mesothelioma, pulmonary hypertension, and more.


Recently, there has been an uptick in flu-like symptoms among Lagosians, such as sore throats and coughing, which some fear could be related to a resurgence of COVID-19. These health issues have been linked to the rising air pollution in Lagos, impacting the residents’ health. This situation underscores the dire consequences of neglecting environmental health. Currently, the link between air pollution and health challenges remains a pressing issue in Lagos, Nigeria. 


To address these issues, efforts are needed to implement and enforce stricter regulations on vehicle emissions, improve public transportation infrastructure to reduce reliance on individual vehicles, promote cleaner industrial practices, invest in waste management infrastructure, and encourage the use of cleaner cooking fuels and technologies. Additionally, increasing green spaces and urban greening initiatives can help mitigate the impacts of air pollution on public health in Lagos. 


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