Environmental Talk: Dangers of Dust

Environmental Talk: Dangers of Dust


Members of UGPulse in the Diaspora have always commented on how dusty Uganda seemed on their visits...

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: April 1, 2007


Members of UGPulse in the Diaspora have always commented on how dusty Uganda seemed on their visits. Others have complained of eye irritation, respiratory problems, and other related problems attributed to the high dust levels in the air surrounding us. Those of us living in Uganda are always sneezing our noses off and literally live in a haze.


Particulate matter (PM) is the general term for the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the ai r. Some particles are large enough to be visible as smoke or soot. Others are so small they can be detected only with an electron microscope. "Fine" particles result from motor vehicles, generators, factories as well as from residential fireplaces and wood stoves. Larger "coarse" particles come largely from windblown dust, vehicles traveling on unpaved roads, and crushing and grinding operations. Some particles are emitted directly from their sources, for example, smoke stacks and cars. In other cases, gases such as sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides interact with other compounds in the air to form fine particles. These tiny bits of soot can travel hundreds of miles downwind of the original pollution sources.

The negative environmental and health impacts of particulate matter affect us all; young, old, rich, poor, driver, pedestrian, cyclist we all breathe the same air. Air pollution knows no borders. If it was expelled in Kampala, the winds might take it as far as Kyenjojo, or even farther. Particulate matter irritates the human respiratory tract, sparks off attacks of respiratory ailments like asthma and can aid lung cancer. Not everybody that regularly inhales motor vehicle fumes or smokes gets lung cancer but the majority of those who do get this disease are linked to this kind of exposure.


Most Ugandan roads are enveloped by dust especially during rush hours
Most Ugandan roads are enveloped by dust especially during rush hours.

Besides, this particulate matter lowers visibility on roads especially at night. Unlike dust from road surfaces that is denser, that from internal combustion engines floats around and lingers longer over the road surface. It is also more difficult for the hairs in the nose to trap due to its finer size and so it penetrates deeper into the respiratory tract, causing the above mentioned afflictions.

We can all help improve the quality of the air we breathe by taking some care in what kind of lifestyle we lead. If you really need a car and can afford to buy a new model, go greener by purchasing a hybrid version. Most Japanese manufacturers now roll out hybrid models of all sizes. A hybrid engine uses a combination of electrical power and a conventional internal combustion engine to supply propulsion for the car. At less than about 50km/h, it runs on a set of batteries. Over that, the engine kicks in. While the engine is running, it charges the batteries. The brake system is also designed such that instead of turning the braking (kinetic) energy into useless heat, it powers dynamos in the wheels that also charge the batteries. In short, the car rarely needs external charging for its batteries.

The Government of Uganda on its part had better ensure all busy roads are professionally paved and maintained. Potholes cause drivers to brake sharply and accelerate away afterwards. This causes extra and unnecessary pollution into our precious air.

It is also very crucial that the government periodically tests all vehicles on Uganda's roads for acceptable emissions compliance. This can be enforced the same way road tax is. On our part, we can take the care of regularly servicing our cars and generators if we insist on using them. The most offending engines are those that are abused.

Some individuals have run for quick fixes like running air conditioning units in their cars, offices and sometimes homes. While conditioned air is certainly safer (although not completely) than the polluted air in most Ugandan towns, the process of conditioning it creates more pollution elsewhere. If it is in a car, the car will consume more fuel and spew out more pollutants. The same applies to stationary air conditioning units in a building. Besides private generators, part of Uganda's mains power is sourced from large Umeme sponsored generators. The total result is more pollution or increased inefficiency in energy management or both.

Ugandan drivers who can afford the cost drive with the air conditioning running. You can tell by noticing cars with rolled up windows in the midday heat
Ugandan drivers who can afford the cost drive with the air conditioning running.
You can tell by noticing cars with rolled up windows in the midday heat.

At the end of January 2007, scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the most conclusive evidence to date that we humans are responsible for accelerating global warming and its attendant effects. Now, are we going to do something about it?

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: April 1, 2007
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.