“Clean air, please!”


“Clean air,  please!”

“Clean air, please!”

What is air pollution?

Air is our source of life, and different human activities release substances into this air, some of which cause problems for humans, plants and animals. These are known as pollutants. Outdoor pollutants come mainly from burning fuels in automobiles, industries and homes, from acid rain and from the increase of carbon dioxide in air. Surprisingly enough, air pollution can sometimes be worse inside our homes than it is outdoors.

Cairo, our city

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), children in cities with populations over 10 million are exposed to levels of air pollution two to eight times higher than the level the WHO considers acceptable. The greater Cairo area, home to 20 million people, has some of the most polluted air in the world. This is due to the factories around the city, automobiles that are not fitted with pollution-reducing devices, unleaded gasoline generally not available, dust and sand blown in from the Western desert, the lack of rain, the city’s layout consisting of tall buildings and narrow streets, the burning of rice straw and garbage, and the early morning smog.

Indoor pollution

On average, people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. Research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on human exposure to air pollutants indicated that the indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels, and those most susceptible to indoor air pollution are children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses.

There are many sources of pollutants inside our houses. The obvious ones are tobacco smoke (which contains some 4,000 chemicals including known cancer-causing agents), cleaning products and pesticides.

Less obvious are pollutants caused by simple tasks such as cooking, bathing, or heating the house, and possible vapors from building materials, paints, and furniture. Biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, pollen, dust mites and other insects, animal fur particles and mold flourish in improperly maintained air ducts, air conditioners, air-cleaning filters, carpets, sofas, stuffed chairs and toys, and bedding. They also thrive in improperly ventilated places where moisture is most likely to collect, such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and basements. Viruses can also be carried indoors and spread by people. Another pollutant is carbon monoxide, which rises from gas appliances like furnaces, ovens, water heaters, clothes dryers, wood and coal stoves, heaters, charcoal grills, etc.

Most houses in Egypt are old, meaning that lead will most likely be found in the paint on the walls and windowsills, and in the drinking water from water pipes or the solder that joins pipes together. Lead is especially dangerous for young children.

Why are children more sensitive?

“Due to their size, physiology and behavior, children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental hazards,” states Dr. Nasser Gamal, PhD lecturer of pediatrics and member of the European Society of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. He explains that their immature systems are less able to handle or detoxify toxins. Children breathe in 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults do. Young children might put their hands in their mouths up to 45 times an hour! They crawl and play on the ground, and are therefore more exposed to potentially contaminated dust, floor and soil. Dr. Gamal adds, “Children also play a great deal outdoors when sunlight is at its strongest, hence, air pollution levels are highest.

Other than the spread of infections by bacteria and viruses, allergic reactions may be the most common health problem associated with poor indoor air quality. Breathing even low levels of carbon monoxide can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea and headaches, and may have long term negative side effects on children’s health. As for lead, even small bits of paint, too small to be seen, can come off windows, doors and walls, creating lead dust. Children who crawl on the floor, put toys in their mouths or play in soil around the home or nursery can be poisoned by lead.

Tobacco smoke is an important source of toxic air contaminants and contributes to a number of health problems that can be chronic, such as childhood asthma, or even deadly, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If a mother smokes during pregnancy, the growth of the unborn child can be adversely affected, increasing the risk of low birth weight. Children whose mothers smoke have 70 percent more respiratory problems and middle-ear infections than children of non-smokers. Passive smoking can also worsen symptoms in children with allergies and may make them more sensitive to food allergens.