Health officials say air pollution in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, is an often-overlooked, undiagnosed killer that is as much of a health threat as the country’s leading cause of death, malaria.
“People banalise pollution because no one ever made the link…between pollution, illness and death,” said UN Development Programme coordinator Mathieu Houinato. “They think as long as they can put up with it, it is okay. People do not understand the deadly cumulative [long-term] impact it has on their health.”
Air pollution has grown worse in Cotonou with the increase in population, old cars, carbon dioxide-emitting motorbikes and high-lead smuggled gasoline.
On average, 50,000 people have moved to the capital every year, swelling the population from 638,000 in 2001 to more than one million in 2008, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
About 100,000 cars and 80,000 vintage fuel-guzzling motorbikes congest streets, emitting 82 tons of carbon dioxide a day, one of the highest emissions in the region according to research undertaken by Benin’s Ministry of Environment, the World Bank, and the local Zemidjan- which means “get me there quickly” in the Fon national language- Motorbike Association.
The port city boasts easy access to the world’s imports, including its used cars; the Ministry of Environment estimates the average age of a car arriving at Cotonou’s port is 13 years-old.
Widely-available, smuggled gasoline from neighbouring Nigeria is the preferred choice for most drivers, despite its high lead content, because it is 40 percent cheaper than fuel-station petrol, which sells at about US$1.44 per litre.
But even fuel purchased at the pump can have dangerously high lead levels, despite the government’s efforts to enforce lead emission limits. A petroleum specialist at the Ministry of Environment, Wilfrid Mongazi, says government efforts are limited by its lack of measuring equipment, “We don’t know if lead levels have really fallen.”
In 2002 the World Bank estimated respiratory and lead illnesses, caused in part by long-term exposure to air pollution, cost the country more than US$40 million a year, or about one percent of its national budget.
Paul Djimadja, 32, told IRIN he had few health problems growing up in Cotonou, but for the past 10 years, he has contracted both sinusitis and bronchitis, which he said his doctor linked to air pollution, most likely vehicle exhaust.
Cotonou-based doctor Soluoi Badarou rated pollution as deadly of a health threat as malaria because of its long-term health risks. “This is how people can develop asthma, sinus allergies, eye infections, and cancers like leukaemia caused by long-term exposure to benzene [a carcinogen in gasoline].”
A 2006 study of Cotonou’s air pollution by an international team of researchers measured village and city residents’ exposure to benzene, concluding city residents had higher levels of cell damage, or lesions, which over time can develop into more serious forms of untreatable cancer.
Ministry of Environment 2006 research reported carbon dioxide emissions at Cotonou’s intersections were ten times as high as outlying areas further from the city centre.
But the Minister of Environment, Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, said things are improving, announcing in August 2008 that air pollution had decreased by 12 percent in Benin thanks to emission controls in place since 2006, including auto-mechanic trainings to improve car maintenance, and road construction to unblock congestion.
The state can fine polluters up to US$21,000.
But environmental ministry specialist Mongazi told IRIN it is hard to enforce the many environmental controls in place, “There is no shortage of ideas [to fight pollution] in this country. The studies have been conducted, environmental treaties signed, but there is no money to carry out the policy and the follow-through is not vigorous.”
The government has tried to introduce more environmentally-safe motorbikes since 2006, with little success.
On 26 September at a stop light in downtown Cotonou, dozens of motorbikes lined up surrounded by one another’s fumes. One passenger, Jean Paul, held a small white tissue to his noise, unable to stop sneezing.