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February 19, 2019

Relax, take a deep breath

Travelling within Eastlands in Nairobi is to experience what is urban Africa. There is order in the disorder. Because of our colonial past, trees are only found in the west part of the city. Colonialists did not plant any trees there nor was it part of the independence deal. So the area is hot and dusty. The traffic system cannot handle the number of vehicles, so short distances of two-three kilometres take 30 minutes to traverse. It starts with the roads, which are mainly single lanes, then because the area is mainly residential without major arterial roads, there are speed humps everywhere, large ones, the assumption that little ones will not be respected. Where there is a roundabout or a junction there is a further slow down and therefore vehicles out of one lane form three or four lanes then squeeze back to one lane as they change directions to join new roads. To do so quickly requires a large vehicle and the driver to ignore any peripheral vision they may have. Only the very scared or the bully glance to the side at the vehicle next to them. The rest focus resolutely ahead, inching their car into any available space in front until the vehicles on each side either give way or do not. There is hardly a vehicle in Eastlands that does not have a paint job on it. The combination of the traffic system, the behaviour of the drivers, the failure of the colonial government coupled with slow economic growth means that a lot of time is taken to travel short distances but the drivers cannot afford to have their windows closed. They therefore sit in what is in effect an air soup of vehicle exhaust fumes all day long from dawn late into the night.

Most of the public transport vehicles use diesel. Diesel exhaust is a complex mixture of gases and fine soot particles that contain many toxic air contaminants. The gases are mainly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur oxides and hydrocarbons. The soot is made up of particles such as carbon, organic materials and traces of metallic compounds. Some of these compounds are known or suspected to cause cancer. Others are harmful environmental pollutants. Because the gases and particles are suspended in the air, as we breathe in air we take in these substances into our lungs. Spending time near a road, where engines are idling and therefore burning inefficiently means inevitable facing higher than necessary exposure to these diesel exhausts. In one USA study, 70 per cent of the cancer risk faced by residents in an area was from breathing toxic air pollutants from diesel exhaust particles. But it is not just cancer we need to worry about. These exhaust fumes can irritate the eyes, nose and throat causing coughs, nausea and headaches. It can also aggravate lung conditions such as asthma and damage the immune system. Of particular concern therefore are children’s exposures to high levels of diesel exhausts. People exposed to diesel exhaust fumes visit the health facility more often than those who are not.

All this might sound alarming and stressful, and it should ring off some alarm bells. But then rather than be stressed and do nothing it is best to take action. Many of our city and county’s leaders live in Eastlands so they and their families are also affected by the problem, which is both short term and long term in nature. In the very short term it requires people to be calm and logical in their thinking. Usually when people are stressed their breathing is affected and they have shallow, panicky breaths. The advice then is proper diaphragmatic breathing where you take a deep breath through the nose, fully fill your lungs, until you notice that your lower belly rises. Pride aside for those of us with a belly image issues this is the right way to breath. When you breathe this way the diaphragm is fully utilised and oxygen flows into the body through the lungs so that even the small blood vessel get their full dose of oxygenated air. If you are not used to doing this and do it two or three times your brain tells you immediately that it is a beneficial thing. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower the heart rate and therefore stress in the body. So why do we not do it? After all it is a natural thing to do and we were taught it in physical education in primary school.

Perhaps the way we behave contributes to a negative cycle that becomes ever more stressful. Why, with your window down, millimetres away from having to paint your car again, the air thick with diesel exhaust would you choose to take a deep breath? At that point adrenaline driven shallow breathing seems the best, but then it becomes a habit and so we do not think it is necessary to take a step back and build an environment with big trees that eventually provide the clean air and a calming effect.

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