On February 20th, 2023, Ghanaians awoke to unusual weather that caused some concern. One of the concerns was whether it was safe to breathe the smoggy air. The air quality was described as “hazardous” by IQAir’s AirVisual, a real-time air quality platform.
“Ghana’s air quality exceeds the World Health Organization’s annual air quality guideline value by 49.6 times.”
According to IQAir’s AirVisual, this was due to the high concentration of PM2.5 in Accra’s atmosphere. “The current PM2.5 concentration in Greater Accra is 11 times higher than the recommended limit given by the WHO 24-hour air quality guidelines value,” it added.
Both the Ghana Meteorological Agency and the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency issued press releases later that day to explain the weather pattern.
Ghana Meteorological Agency said it had noticed dust lifted from Chad, Niger, and Sudan and transported into the country by strong winds at lower levels of the atmosphere.
“…Pollutant levels (PM2.5) exceeded the national limit and World Health Organization (WHO) interim target 3 values of 35 and 25g/m3, respectively,” according to the EPA.
“The air quality index recorded at the EPA’s Monitoring Site located at the University of Ghana between February 1-19, 2023 was largely moderate except for February 15-16 when it increased to unhealthy for sensitive groups and then unhealthy to very unhealthy between February 17-19,” according to the release.
According to the WHO’s updated guidelines, “annual average PM2.5 concentrations should not exceed 5 g/m3, and 24-hour average exposures should not exceed 15 g/m3 more than 3 – 4 days per year.”
“Countries can reduce the burden of disease and long-term and short-term illnesses by lowering air pollution levels,” the WHO urges.
Air is unsafe to breathe if concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3).
Indoor and outdoor air pollution kills around 7 million people each year. And many more suffer from related conditions such as premature birth, low birth weight and asthma.
“Air pollution is deadly, and people living in cities are most affected. The health risk comes from harmful gases and fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into our lungs and pass into our bloodstreams, affecting our respiratory, cardiovascular and other body systems,” according to the WHO.
To protect lives, the EPA warned Ghanaians about the dangers of inhaling dust and urged them to wear masks.
“The Environmental Protection Agency wishes to implore vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly, children, pregnant women, people with asthma and related allergies, and any other persons with underlying health conditions, to reduce outdoor activities where necessary.”
The US Embassy in Ghana also released an air quality index, along with infographics for communication purposes.
Zubaida Mabuno Ismail, an environmental and climate change journalist, wanted to know if the weather pattern was caused by climate change and if the average Ghanaian made sense of the information from these agencies.
“It wasn’t caused by climate change,” said Dr Daniel Tutu Benefo of the EPA said.
Understanding the urgency
Agnes lives in one of Accra’s outskirts. She survives by trading candies on the streets. Her job requires her to chase down vehicles in order to reach her customers, which puts her in the middle of the weather.
Agnes was serving customers without a mask on this fateful day.
“According to the news, we should wear masks like we did during COVID-19. This is not necessary in my opinion, “She stated.
“This is not a disease that can be passed from person to person, so why are we being told to wear nosemasks?” asked another vendor, Joe.
During the peak of the global pandemic, Agnes and Joe both said they never went a day without wearing nose masks. But, as with the COVID-19 safety protocols, why are they not following this advice?
Dr Tutu Benefo acknowledged the difficulty in communicating the content of weather and climate change. According to him, this phenomenon affects all aspects of environmental and human protection.
“We are dealing with the difficulty of explaining to people the content of policies,” he said.
Dr Tutu Benefo termed the situation as worrying but was quick to add that, strides have been made in communicating the urgency of events like the smoggy air including those around climate change.
This story was supported by Penplusbyte as part of a climate change capacity building for journalists in Ghana.