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Opinions of Saturday, 13 December 2003

Columnist: Awortwi-Mensah, Paul

Need To Minimise Urban Environment To Safeguard Health

ONE sector faced with the biggest environmental problem of our time in Ghana is the transportation sector. The adverse environmental impact of transportation is growing more rapidly than that of any sector of society. This is because of its almost total dependence on fossil energy resources.

This is generally accepted and yet, surprisingly, very little is being done about it. Air pollution from smoking vehicles in the form of carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and a variety of toxic substances is a cause of eutrophication and acidification which affect the health of the people.

Pollution from urban motor vehicle traffic is said to increase the risk of lung cancer. For example, a study conducted by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency dubbed "Swedenenvironment" on men living in Stockholm, have revealed that there is an increase of lung cancer from vehicle fumes. The same applies to diesel fumes and asbestos in workplaces and residential areas. On the other hand, no link was found between the risk of lung cancer from the emissions from household heating.

Lung cancer is the form of cancer that claims the lives of many people the world over, especially those living in urban centres in developing countries. Other health risks which are associated with urban air pollution and vehicular emission include symptoms ranging from hypertension and reduced productivity to premature death from carbon exposure as well as Intellectual Quota (IQ) decrease in children from lead intake. Others are respiratory dysfunction ranging from coughing and asthma to premature death from exposure to sulphur dioxide, ozone and particles, as well as reproductive problems, infertility, fecundity, birth defects and cancer from toxic substances such as benzene and aldehydes.

Another study conducted by the United State Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) indicates that significant health risks can and do occur from air pollutant from which ambient air concentrations do not exceed legislated standards. Environmental pollutants are categorized as "higher", "medium’ and "lower’ risk.. Pollutants in the higher risk category are considered at least 100 times and serious from health perspective than those in the low category.

The cost to society of such pollution can be evaluated by estimating the cost of providing medical treatment to victims suffering from such exposures, by correlating increased rates of illness to reduced labour productivity and by valuing premature deaths much in the same way as is done for insurance purposes. Of the pollutants listed above, lead often receives the most attention because the cost associated with it is high.

Urban pollution in Ghana includes the activities of corn millers, factories sited in residential areas, among others. What is more, about 90 per cent of the vehicles on the roads, ranging from salon cars, private vehicles to commercial ones, from motor bikes to articulated trucks all "smoke" and nobody seems to question this problem. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not been effective. Just ineffective, as pollution engulfs Ghanaians with no end in sight.

Environmental pollution with its associated effects, has led to climate changes and increased greenhouse emission in Ghana, especially in the urban centers. It was, indeed, reassuring, when ministers of states, scientists and experts from 170 countries met in the Hague, capital of The Netherlands, to find solutions to how to reduce greenhouse gas.

At that conference, participants were faced with the challenge of finding an internationally acceptable agreement to transfer the climate change treaties of 1992 and 1997 into

action. The conference also offered participants the opportunity to take final steps towards the Kyoto Protocol signed in Japan in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol calls for a worldwide reduction of emissions of carbon-based gases by an average of 5.2 per cent below the 1990 levels by the year 2012.

It is thus a welcoming idea that Ghana is implementing renewable energy pilot projects to explore the possibility of increasing the use of solar energy in the country, and that though about 20 per cent of the country’s electricity is generated from a thermal plant based at Aboadze, near Takoradi, the government is planning to substitute natural gas for light crude oil being used by the plant. This is a refreshing piece of news, the decision is environmentally-friendly.

A research conducted by the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) and published in 1996 revealed that alcohol can be used as an alternative transport fuel. The research hinted that methanol and ethanol are two of the several transportation fuels that can be produced on a sustainable basis and could be used to limit growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

The government of Ghana must initiate new policies aimed at reducing the surge in greenhouse gas emissions. Such measures should include imposing restrictions on and discouraging the use of old vehicles, imposing fuel-efficiency standards and encouraging the use of no-fossil fuels.

Frankly speaking, no energy path is internally sustainable, ensuring the sustainability of an energy system requires an institutional infrastructure capable of establishing, monitoring and enforcing regulations aimed at protecting the environment.

Any sustainable alternative that can contribute to achieving a range of goals without requiring the near-term replacement of vehicles stock and without precluding the adoption of future alternatives should be considered as potential contributing component of a comprehensive solution.

It thus behoves the government of Ghana , and all stakeholders to make environmental protection awareness a major theme of education and political debate. It is equally imperative to make respect for the environment as fundamental as safeguarding human rights and freedom.

Ghana fits into this profile.

* Awortwi-Mensah, Paul: The writer is an alumni of The Institute for Further Education of Journalism at the Kalmar University in Sweden and a former court correspondent of the Daily Graphic in Accra. He now lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.