Air Pollution in Nairobi Causes stunted  Growth in Children

By Gitonga Njeru


Philemon is aged just nine years old. The last few years, she has been constantly sick. She has been in and out of hospital with  breathing related complications and she has never understood the underlying problem.

“I often have headaches, feeling tired a lot and coughing a lot almost every day for a while. I sometimes even faint when doing extra activities in school.

“Its very difficult for me to understand. I often feel nausea and headaches. I am taking prescribed medicine regularly.

“But after taking a short nap, i often get temporary relief. I often get bullied in school and teased by other children because of my short height.

“I often feel like changing to a new school but my parents are short of cash”, said Philemon.

Philemon has visible medical conditions that are related to stunted growth, these challenges are caused by exposure to unclean air.

Some of the symptoms and conditions she experiences often vary. They are associated with the lungs, kidneys and the liver.

These symptoms include high toxicity levels and inflammation of the organs.

According to her mother Frieda Nyarangi, Philemon has also developed stunted growth as her health continues to worsen.

The average height for a nine-year-old girl is 48 inches or 122 centimetres.

But she has not shown signs of physical growth since the age of six. She is currently only 43 inches and only 18 kilograms. Her weight is way below what is recommended by the World Health Organization of 28.12 Kilograms.

Frieda has for a long time been unaware of the health problems of her children. She has been using  firewood and charcoal to cook her food, mostly on  a cooking stove that causes a lot of smoke.

Although  she has recently switched to cooking gas which is far less harmful. However, t has not undone the effect of cooking stove on her children. Cooking gas is an alternative to firewood fuel which is less harmful.

While there are smokeless and clean cookstoves available, the most commonly seen cookstoves in Nairobi produces plumes of smoke which contain  Carbon Monoxide Formaldehyde  which is toxic to humans. Nyarangi has also switched to the clean cooking stoves.

Immediate Fatalities have been known to occur when. doors and windows are closed with little or no ventilation.

As a parent, Frieda  has done her best to raise her children in a happy and safe environment However, the effects of indoor air pollution on her children have taken a huge burden on her, both psychologically and financially.

Most of her  income now goes to purchasing drugs and other medical related expenses.

Freida is aged only 29 and her children are aged three years and nine years respectively.

She sells part of the food she cooks to add to the family income and uses the leftover to feed her family.

She lives on an area called Baba Ndogo, a poor neighbourhood in the outskirts of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The area has poor infrastructure that also includes little or no clean water piping, poor roads and unsanitary conditions such as unsecured garbage dumpsites.

Her fellow residents burn the uncollected garbage, increasing health public risks associated with air pollution caused by green house gases and the substances they burn.

Frieda . says that both of her children are often in and out of hospital.

“My husband is a casual worker and only survives on short contracted jobs. Every time we visit a doctor, he tells us that my children have developed stunted growth and their nervous system has been affected.

“Chemical such as carbon monoxide formaldehyde and other indoor pollutants have contributed negatively to the problem. Doctors confirmed this to me”,  Nyarangi says.

Apart from physical development, her children also have slow cognitive development over the years.

“I have observed them both physically and mentally over the years. i took them to different specialized doctors and got a diagnosis.

“At first you do not realize the problem and it only comes at a certain time. some advanced diagnostic kits and equipment can only be found in India.

“I plan to do some fund raising as hospital costs are estimated to be expensive abroad. I have incurred about 1.4 million so far in four years and in need of more money for more medical needs of my children You have to budget for further diagnosis and specialized treatment.

“But also you have to include the costs of living while in India”, says Nyarangi.

“My children often experience headaches, dizziness, and they are often fatigued. This is due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“My doctor told me it was the major cause of these symptoms and surprisingly. stunted growth”, says Nyarangi.

She confirms that her children often experience flu like symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, sneezing and sometimes difficulty breathing.

The symptoms are seasonal but they last longer than the average cold. They often last six weeks. She has reduced burning of wood to cook food.

Alot of her expenses have been paid for by well wishers and a few relatives.

A local doctor who is a Paediatrician says that air pollution affects children more than adults.

“Their immunity is not as strong as that of adults as their bodies are not as those of young adults “, says Dr. Gacheri Nyamu. a Paediatrician working in Nairobi.

She says that the data she keeps in her facility has left strong evidence between air pollution and stunted growth in children.

“Some of the physical and cognitive challenges start during pregnancy and are evident during the perinatal and neonatal stages of life.

“But they begin to reflect clearly during the later stages in childhood between the ages of two years to averagely eleven years old. Air pollution is real and we have to put preventive other than curative measures”, says Dr. Nyamu.

A week hardly passes by without having at least five cases of children having health complications associated with air pollution.

She says that more research needs to be done on air pollution and the pituitary gland hormone. It is responsible for the physical height increase in children.

“The pituitary is great source of plasma but the effects on the brain are not known much. Pollutants affect physical growth and sleep is interrupted, obviously affecting the brain.

“More research needs to be done. There is however, very strong evidence that air pollutants affect physical growth”, says Dr. Nyamu.

Some of the chemicals found in blood stream and other internal organs include, carbon monoxide formaldehyde.

These chemicals were found from different blood tests conducted including a liver function test.

“This is the most common found in the bloodstream of children. Most households in Nairobi cannot afford safe cooking gas as they are expensive.

“Carbon monoxide poisoning is fatal. Very fatal within a very short time in some incidences if ignored. When it builds up in the blood, the body replaces the oxygen available in the red blood cells. It often leads to damage to the internal organs and it includes. the kidneys and lungs”, says Dr. Nyamu.

She says that carbon monoxide formaldehyde has no odour or smell.

“Also using charcoal stoves indoors behind closed doors and windows is dangerous. Some households sleep overnight to keep themselves warm overnight under burning charcoal stoves. That is dangerous and should be prohibited”, says Dr. Nyamu.

The cases are rising in Kenya and can be attributed to rapid urbanisation.

The doctor says that across most medical facilities, there are many hospitalisations and many cases are referred to her.

“There is very strong evidence that air pollution is killing children. There is also strong evidence that mostly, indoor air pollution is stunting the growth of children, both physically and cognitively”, she says.

According to Dr. Nyamu, other household pollutants that are found in the bloodstream of Kenyan children includes, asbestos, carpet cleaning items, cockroaches, and also building and plant products.

“These pollutants are a public health hazard. They have stunted the growth of many children. But the worst part is that many children have lost their lives”, says Dr Nyamu.

But typical pollutants such as combustion by products including carbon monoxide and tobacco smoke should be a cause of concern for policy makers.

“Nitrogen Dioxide and cookstoves should be avoided and the specially in the case of pregnant and lactating women. Stunted growth cases i receive are from these pollutants. Lead is probably the worst health threat to children”, says Dr. Nyamu.

Dr. Nyamu says that Carbon Monoxide traps haemoglobin in the blood. This she says it reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen to major organs of the body. This results in many health conditions including stunted physical growth.

According to data from the World Health Organization, there are only 207 registered paediatricians as of last year. Most go to foreign countries to seek bigger opportunities as they are poorly renumerated locally.

The United Nations health watchdog, the ratio is 1 Paediatrician to 84,000 children. But the World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 1 in every 15,000.

“Many opt to go abroad for advanced treatment. Some cases are extremely expensive and the diagnosis stage is very costly. Also, there is not enough equipment to test for pollutants in the blood.

“For example, a lead test costs anywhere between 115,000 Kenya Shillings ($800) to about 173,000 Kenya shillings ($1,200) depending on the toxicity levels and m medical facility “,’says Dr. Phillip Onyango, a Paediatrician working in Nairobi.

This tests are in children but the costs are much higher in adults. The treatment costs are even more expensive that involve removing the pollutant from the blood and internal organs.

He says that lead can be transmitted through the air in small particles but also from  the soill and combustion fuels such as fossil diesel.

If lead levels in the blood are high, doctors recommend retesting in one month.

“Children develop Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). and different forms of oxygen therapy are administered on them in cases of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Doctors do this to try and avoid permanent organ damage that can result in eventual transplant or dialysis”, adds Dr. Onyango.

A number of complicated cases are referred to Kenya’s largest referral hospital for advanced treatment. But due to large volumes of children with air pollution health cases, they are referred abroad to specialized physicians. Most cases are sent to India and University of California Medical Center (UCLA) in Los Angeles.

Kenyatta National Hospital deals with these cases countrywide. It has a special unit called the Department of Occupational Health. All referrals are sent to this facility which is Eastern Africa’s largest referral Hospital.

All of the country’s health data on paediatric health is kept in this facility, in addition to that from regional countries.

It is also one of the very few facilities that also performs repeat lead tests on children.

In children between 1 to 3 years, it is recommended they test twice a year. also regular tests become more  relevant and common as they get older.

Professor Machoki M”Munya from the University of Nairobi, Faculty of Health Sciences, says its a serious issue.

“Health challenges associated with air pollution is a serious concern in children. In the department of Occupational Health, we deal with all kinds of cases. All the way from pregnancy to later stages of childhood after birth.

“In carbon monoxide poisoning, most children test for chronic exposure, usually over seven cubic milligrams is dangerous and eventually fatal.

“The interesting part is that most children do not experience any symptoms. The health implications just set in such as stunted growth”, says Professor M’Munya.

He confirmed that the hospital department which he is a board member will soon publish findings in the British Medical Journal.

“About 3,5 milligrams (g/dL) of lead in the blood can cause renal failure in adolescents and slow physical growth or even no growth at all. This is what is referred to as the chronic stage.

“Even in early stages there is stunted growth. Lead poisoning has no symptoms and so it is difficult to detect. In children they are more vulnerable than adults.

“Air pollution is killing Kenyan children, about 4,124 as of 2022. This year, the numbers continue to rise. We are also dealing with referrals from as far as D.R Congo”, says Professor M’Munya.

He says that 22 percent of the cases they receive at Kenyatta National hospital on children, is stunted growth related to air pollution substances.

Sixty percent of the total cases are from Nairobi.

Sammy Simiyu sits in the health Committee of Nairobi County. He says that air pollution is a serious issue in Nairobi especially as the city continues to urbanize.

“About 5,000 of Kenyan children died from air pollution in 2019 according to Global Health. This is close to 25 percent of the 22,000 total deaths deaths.

Professor Paul Njogu teaches analytical Chemistry at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

He predicts based on studies that air pollution is set to get worse in coming years. This is partly due to poor policy in the country to control and regulate air pollution.

“Black Carbon is a greenhouse substance  and it should be a major concern for the country. It is produced when fossil fuels are burned. It contributes greatly to Indoor air pollution from cooking stoves and wood burning.

“It has health implications”, says Professor Njogu.

The County government of Nairobi is planning to introduce clean cooking stoves at designated public cooking places such as kiosks. According to Simiyu, this will help curb the problem.

“We plan to introduce affordable clean cooking stoves to different eating outlets in the coming months. We have set about $5 million for the initiative”, he says.

This story was made possible with a grant from The Earth Journalism Network (EJN).