Air quality

Ambient air pollution is a leading cause of disease and death in cities, and especially among children.

World Health Organization

Local air pollution is driven by various factors, notably rapid urbanization, increased motorisation and energy use, as well as burning wastes and solid fuels for domestic cooking and heating. Motorised traffic is a key source of local pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other particulate matter.

Particulate matter affects more people than any other pollutant and has a particularly severe effect on children. Long-term exposure to particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10) increases the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer. In Africa, between 1990 and 2013, the total annual deaths from ambient Particulate matter pollution rose by 36 per cent to around 250,000.

In many African cities, infrastructure for monitoring local air quality conditions is limited. Greater effort is required to establish systems for rigorous monitoring and mitigation of air pollution, particularly in school zones.


1. Mandate clean vehicles and fuels

Tighten emissions standards for vehicles and reduce the sulfur content of fuels.

2. Monitor air quality

Set up air quality monitoring stations to track ambient concentrations of nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants.

3. Interagency coordination

Create an active coalition of agencies and stakeholder organizations to ensure coordination of air quality monitoring processes.

4. Build public awareness

Build public awareness on local air quality conditions and health effects of pollution.

5. Create a peer learning network

Share information on successful approaches in exposure assessment and monitoring of health impacts of pollution.

Best practices

Air quality monitoring entails the regular measurement of ambient levels of harmful local pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). A robust air quality management system should establish local air quality standards (using guidance from global standards developed by the World Health Organization) and track pollution trends over time.


Case Study: Citizen Science and Air Pollution Monitoring 

In 2015, the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) developed a new air quality assessment approach with a strong focus on personal and community exposure to pollutants, that actively raised awareness of the challenges posed by air pollution to the health of the residents of informal settlements. In Mukuru, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, The Citizen Science and Air Pollution Monitoring (CSAP) project was undertaken with the following goals:

  • Perform a pilot study on monitoring of indoor and outdoor Particulate Matter (PM) levels, using mobile monitors carried around by trained individuals from the local community;
  • Inform the affected public about the risk air pollution poses to their health and options how to overcome these threat, and;
  • Identify the capacity gaps with respect to indoor and outdoor air pollution with specific focus to the environment and health policy communities at the county (Nairobi) and national levels.

The pilot study sought to provide a basis for developing a more comprehensive and long-term collaborative program that will contribute to reducing air pollution exposure, and the associated health effects, in informal settlements throughout sub-Saharan Africa

Through the work of the CSAP pilot, the Kenyan Air Quality Network was established. Policy-makers and other local stakeholders decided to form a network with the aim of exchanging information and having collective action around research, engagement, education and public awareness. SEI Africa is the secretariat of this network which meets quarterly.

Local air pollution in Mukuru, Nairobi, Kenya.


Community volunteer with air quality sensor backpack.

Engaging children, parents, and school authorities to conduct live air quality monitoring experiments can help increase awareness about the impacts of air pollution on children’s health. The experience can empower students to become advocates of change with their families, the wider community, and even in the local and national policy making process.

Case Study: Cleaner Air 4 Schools

FIA Foundation and London Sustainability Exchange (LSx) developed the Cleaner Air 4 Schools project to help primary school pupils (ages 7-11) learn about air pollution and its effects on the environment and health. The project used a curriculum-based educational programme, the Cleaner Air 4 Primary Schools toolkit, which was first developed by LSx for the Greater London Authority. The project in London was set up and delivered by LSx in partnership with local organisations Clean Air Asia in New Delhi and UN Environment and KUWA in Nairobi.

The curriculum took the pupils, teachers and parents through the impact of air pollution on their everyday lives. Pupils used diffusion tubes to analyse local air quality and identify locations with higher levels of pollution in and around the schools. London, Nairobi, and New Delhi were chosen as pilot projects because air pollution is a significant issue affecting children living and learning in each of these cities, although the causes and actions needed to improve air quality are markedly different.

In London, mapping of the main walking routes to school identified where pupils were likely to be exposed to the highest levels of pollution. Pupils were encouraged to plan new routes to avoid main roads. Pupils also noted that leaving the engine running outside schools should be discouraged. In India, the pupils expressed interest in promoting activities such as car sharing, tree planting, and use of walking and cycling.

In Nairobi, the session was conducted at Milimani Primary school, which serves over 1,200 children coming from an informal settlements in a middle-income neighbourhood. The majority of the parents and children walked or took public transport to school. The air quality test results recorded low levels of NO2 in the air, which was attributed to the fact that school is located far from a major road. After the training, the pupils encouraged their school to only burn rubbish at weekends when the school is not open.

Children at Milimani Primary School in Nairobi after the Cleaner Air 4 Schools training.

Motorised transport generates nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and aggravates air pollution, resulting in the deaths of seven million people annually and causing health problems such as bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, and brain damage. Walking and cycling, by contrast, are affordable and offer significant social, economic and environmental benefits. Yet many lives are lost through this mode of transport: more than 25 percent of those killed in road accidents are pedestrians, according to the UN. Safer streets and other measures to encourage a shift to walking and cycling are critical to addressing the global challenge of climate change and local air pollution.

The Global High Shift Cycling Scenario assessed the potential contribution of increasing travel on sustainable and efficient modes to a reduction in greenhouse gas pollution. The results show that a dramatic increase in cycling could save USD 24 trillion between 2015 and 2050 and reduce CO2 emissions from urban commuter transport by approximately 11 percent compared to a high shift scenario without a cycling emphasis. Increasing cycling would mean lower congestion, better air quality, and vibrant communities.