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Revealing the Invisible: Rafael and the "World's Worst Air"

The cutting-edge AirVisual Pro air quality monitor by IQAir has been deployed as an outdoor air qualitymonitoring station incities worldwide. In some cities, the AirVisual Pro is the only data source available.

One such city is Port Harcourt, Nigeria. In 2017, citizens choseto take their local air quality into their own hands. For the first time, air quality data from Nigeria was reported in real time and broadcast live to the world.

For the first time, air quality data from Nigeria was being reported in real time and broadcast live to the world.

Rafael, the proactive citizen behind an ingenious air quality monitoring installation involving the AirVisual Pro in his home of Port Harcourt, explainedwhat he sought to achieve by implementing his AirVisual Pro as a public outdoor monitoring station.

Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Covered in a black layer of soot

One day, Rafael noticed a radical change in air quality in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Every morning, he could “see, feel and smell” the pollution in the air.

For several months, the city went through a hazardous phase of air pollution that covered all surfaces in soot.1 During this “soot-storm,” many of Port Harcourt’s nearly 2 million citizens took social media by storm, sharing pictures and videos of the black layer covering clothes, cars, and skin.

Many of Port Harcourt’s nearly 2million citizens took social media by storm, sharing pictures and videos of the black layer covering clothes, cars, and skin.

Situated in the delta of the river Niger, Port Harcourt, the capital city of the Rivers State, is one of the “most impacted cities by air pollution, because of its oil industry,” says Rafael.

Nigeria is the first oil-producing country in Africa.Rivers State, due to its geographical location and natural resources, is home to many international petroleum firms, oil refineries, and pipelines.2,3

AirVisual Pro: A local solution to a national problem

Rafael noticed that the pollution was getting worse. A father of two, Rafael simply wanted to know “with high accuracy how bad the air quality really is” so that he could take measures to protect his family from the effects of the poor air quality.

The lack of public data and information motivated him to request reports on the situation. But his efforts were largely futile, as “the maximum we managed was to get a daily advisory notification, not real-time data.” Rafael wanted data from which he could make informed decisions on the spot.

Then, he discovered the AirVisual Pro air quality monitor which promised exactly what he wanted. He promptly purchased his first AirVisual Pro and installed it at his home. Eager to let his local community benefit from his AirVisual Prodata as well, he set it up outdoors as a public monitoring station. At the time, Rafael's air quality monitor was the first of only two air air quality data sources available in the whole country.

With the AirVisual Pro, Rafael saidhe coulddetect pollution trends and patterns as well as whether it was safe for his children and his family to be outdoors. Having “no power to deal with the source of the pollution, all I can do is have the data and make decisions accordingly.”

What Rafael was most concerned about “illegal activities like illegal oil refineries.”which wereamong the suspected pollution sources for a pollution spike in Port Harcourt.4

At the time, Nigerian authorities estimated that corruption and gang activities managed to siphon “120,000 barrels of oil each day, or about 6 percent of Nigeria's annual barrels per day output.”5 Once stolen, the oil is often refined in dangerous and improvised installations before entering the black market. These illegal refineries not only pollute the air, water, and soilbut also endanger the men and women whose work in these installations is often their only source of income.

Theseillegal oil refineries not onlypollute the air, water, and soilthey also endanger the men and women whose work in these installations is often their only source of income.

The government seems to be tackling the problem by burning down these makeshift refineries as well as the vessels they use for transporting the crude oil, which creates huge toxic smoke.6

A 2019 article published in The Open Chemical Engineering Journal noted that in 2012, 4,349 illegal refineries were destroyed by the military in the Niger Delta.7 In 2020, 136 dugout pits and 201 surface metal storage tanks containing 14,434 barrels of suspected stolen crude oil were dismantled by the military.8

Rafael started noticing high spikes of visible pollution at night. His suspicions were confirmed by his AirVisual Pro, which showed spikes in PM2.5 in the evenings.

Consequently, Rafael started noticing high spikes of visible pollution at night. His suspicions were confirmed by his AirVisual Proreadings, which showed spikes in PM2.5(particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns)in the evenings.

Poor air quality in Nigeria: A symptom of a larger problem

The city of Onitsha, less than 200 miles from Port Harcourt, was ranked by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the city with the world’s worst air in 2016.9 Onitsha averagedan annual concentration of 594 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) of PM10 particles, about 30 times over the international guideline of 20 µg/m3.10

The city of Onitsha, less than 200 miles from Port Harcourt, was ranked by the World Health Organization as the city with the world’s worst air.

Onitsha’s pollution statistics closely mirror those of Port Harcourt, that is now leading a revolution in uncovering not only the sources of local air pollution but also the patterns that underlie their behavior.

According to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, Kano in northeastern Nigeria was the 23rd most polluted city in Africa, with an average air quality was 21.4µ/m3. The city peaked at 59.8µg/m3 that February. In 2018, Kano recorded an average of 53.4µg/m3.

In Rafael’s opinion, illegal refineries and the government’s crackdown on their operations “is only part of what is going on,” as there are many causes of air pollution in Nigeria.

Many other illegal activities, including waste burning and metal smelting, combined with dry weather and dusty grounds, drastically increase PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations. Dry weather and dust are likely a factor in Kano's pollution, as the city is located in the arid Sudanian Savannah, just south of the Sahel and Sahara Desert.

These spikes in pollutants sometimes cause the air quality index (AQI) reading in Port Harcourt to skyrocket over 400. Any AQI reading over 300 is considered “Hazardous,” meaning that poor air quality is so bad that it’s considered a public health emergency.

Pollutant spikes sometimes cause local air quality readings in Port Harcourt to skyrocket over 400 – meaning that poor air quality is a public health emergency.

Exposure to air pollution across Nigeria is significant. Nigeria was the fifth most polluted country in Africa according to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, with an annual PM2.5 mean of 21.4µg/m3.9

The air quality revolution will not be televised...without your help

As levels rise drastically around the world, especially in urban areas, air pollution has received increasingly more attention and awareness:

In many countries, air quality data is stillavailable only from government-operated sources, both at the federal and local level. This can make it challenging to acquire air quality data from a specific region that may not be directly represented by government air quality monitors.

But citizen scientists like Rafael are transforming the way that the global public can monitor and act upon air quality patterns.

Rafael’sair quality monitor, which he installed outdoors, sharedits data with his local community. He toldus that it wasvery useful in helping him make smarter decisions about outdoor activities. It also enabledhis neighbors to be more careful about their daily lives.

The data, he said, “is highly valuable” and can encourage people tokeep local polluters accountable and mobilize the community to invest into the air they’re breathing.

As long as air quality monitors continueto be adopted by passionate activists, citizen scientists, and even concerned families or homeowners, the air quality revolution will continue to gain traction, ensuring that air quality is improved for the entire world as knowledge empowers change.

Get involved!

Interested in setting up your own local air quality monitoring network to put your community on the map with data and recommendations tailored to your neighborhood?

Find out how to become an outdoor air quality data contributor today.

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