Revealing the Invisible: Rafael and the "World's Worst Air"
The cutting-edge AirVisual Pro air quality monitor by IQAir has been deployed as an outdoor air monitoring station in more than 10,000 cities worldwide. In some of these cities, the AirVisual Pro is the only data source available.
One such city is Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Here, citizens have chosen to take their local air quality into their own hands–for the very first time, air quality data from Nigeria is being reported in real time and broadcast live to the world.
Rafael, the proactive citizen behind an ingenious air quality monitoring installation involving the AirVisual Pro in his home of Port Harcourt, explains what he sought to achieve by implementing his AirVisual Pro as a public outdoor monitoring station.
Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Covered in a black layer of soot
One day, Rafael noticed a radical change in air quality in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Every morning, he could “see, feel and smell” the pollution in the air.
For several months, the city went through a hazardous phase of air pollution which covered all surfaces in soot.1 During this “soot-storm,” many of Port Harcourt’s 3 million citizens took social media by storm, sharing pictures and videos of the black layer covering clothes, cars, and skin.
Situated in the delta of the river Niger, Port Harcourt, the capital city of the Rivers State, is one of the “most impacted cities by air pollution, because of its oil industry,” says Rafael. Nigeria is the first oil-producing country in Africa and Rivers State, due to its geographical location and natural resources, is home to many international petroleum firms, oil refineries, and pipelines.2,3
AirVisual Pro: A local solution to a national problem
Rafael noticed the pollution was getting worse. A father of two, Rafael simply wanted to know “with high accuracy how bad the air quality really is” so that he could take measures to protect his family from the effects of the poor air quality.
The lack of public data and information motivated him to request some reports on the situation. But his efforts were largely futile, as “the maximum we managed was to get a daily advisory notification, not real-time data.” Rafael wanted data from which he could make informed decisions on the spot.
Then, he discovered the AirVisual Pro, an air quality monitor that promised exactly what he wanted. He promptly purchased his first AirVisual Pro and installed it at his home. Eager to let his local community benefit from his AirVisual Pro’s data as well, he set it up outdoors as a public monitoring station. His AirVisual Pro was one of the first two air quality data sources available for the whole country.
With the Pro, Rafael says he can detect pollution trends and patterns as well as whether it is safe for his children and his family to be outdoors. Having “no power to deal with the source of the pollution, all I can do is have the data and take decisions accordingly.”
What Rafael is most concerned about is the presence of “illegal activities, like illegal oil refineries”, which were one of the suspected pollution sources for a pollution spike in Port Harcourt.4
Corruption and gang activities manage to siphon “300,000 barrels of oil each day,” Nigerian authorities estimate.5 Once stolen, the oil is often refined in dangerous and improvised installations before entering the black market. Not only do these illegal refineries pollute the air, water, and soil, but they also endanger the men and women whose work in these installations is often their only source of income.
The government seems to be tackling the problem by burning down these makeshift refineries as well as the vessels they use for transporting the crude oil, which creates huge toxic smoke.6 To avoid being spotted, the workers move to night shifts, “as it is harder for the army to see the smoke in the darkness” (at least, this is one interpretation, as there are no official reports available yet from the government).
Consequently, Rafael started noticing high spikes of visible pollution at night. His suspicions were confirmed by his Pro’s readings, which showed spikes in PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, in the evenings.
Poor air quality: A symptom of a larger problem
The city of Onitsha, less than 200 miles from Port Harcourt, was once ranked by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the city with the world’s worst air.7 Onitsha averages an annual concentration of 594 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) of PM10 particles, about 30 times over the international guideline of 20 ug/m3.8
Onitsha’s pollution statistics closely mirror those of Port Harcourt, who is now leading a revolution in uncovering not only the sources of local air pollution but also the patterns that underlie their behavior.
In Rafael’s opinion, illegal refineries and the Nigerian government’s crackdown on their operations “is only part of what is going on.”
Many other illegal activities, including waste burning and metal smelting, combined with dry weather and dusty grounds, drastically increase PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations. These spikes in pollutants sometimes cause the air quality index (AQI) reading in Port Harcourt to skyrocket over 400. For context, any AQI reading over 300 is considered “Hazardous,” meaning that poor air quality is so bad that it’s considered a public health emergency.
Exposure to air pollution across Nigeria is significant. The World Bank previously estimated that 94% of Nigerians were subject to levels of air pollution far higher than the authorized limit by the WHO.9
The air quality revolution will not be televised...without your help
As levels rise drastically around the world, especially in urban areas, air pollution has received increasingly more attention and awareness:
- The Lancet Commission on pollution and health published a report finding that nearly 7 million people die each year from causes directly related to air pollution.10
- The State of Global Air report authored by the Health Effects Institute suggested that over 95% of the world’s population lives in places where the air is considered unsafe to breathe by WHO standards.11
- Reports say that, in some heavily polluted cities, such as Delhi in India and Pittsburgh in the United States, breathing the local air is equivalent to smoking up to 44 cigarettes a day.12,13
Air quality data is still largely available only from government-operated sources, both at the federal and local level. This can make it challenging to acquire air quality data from a specific region that may not be directly represented by government air quality monitors.
But citizen scientists like Rafael are transforming the way that the global public can monitor and act upon air quality patterns.
Rafael’s AirVisual Pro air quality monitor, which he installed outdoors, shares its data with his local community. He tells us it’s very useful in helping him make smarter decisions about outdoor activities. It also enables his neighbors to be more careful about their daily lives.
The data, he says, “is highly valuable” and can encourage people to mitigate the issue of air pollution by providing live readings that keep local polluters accountable and mobilize the community to invest into the air they’re breathing.
As long AirVisual continues to be adopted by passionate activists, citizen scientists, and even concerned families or homeowners, the air quality revolution will continue to gain traction, ensuring that air quality is improved for the entire world as knowledge empowers change.
Interested in setting up your own local air quality monitoring network to put your community on the map with data and recommendations tailored to your neighborhood?
IQAir is a Swiss-based air quality technology company empowering individuals, organizations and communities to breathe clean air through information and collaboration. Since its founding in 1963, IQAir has been a global leader and operates in more than 100 countries worldwide.
- Article Resources
 Nigeria’s Port Harcourt covered in mystery cloud of soot. (2017, March 4).
 Oil production. (2016).
 Nigeria facts and figures. (2017).
 Vidal J. (2013, October 16). Nigerians risk death working at illegal oil refineries.
 Vidal J. (2013, October 5). £1bn a month: The spiralling cost of oil theft in Nigeria.
 Nigeria’s military destroys 13 illegal oil refineries. (2017, April 13).
 Egbedi H. (2017, 13 February). Welcome to Onitsha: The city with the world’s worst air
 WHO air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. (2006).
 Clean air and healthy lungs: How to better tackle air pollution. (2015, February 19).
 Landrigan PJ, et al. (2017). The Lancet commission on pollution and health. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0
 State of global air / 2018. (2018).
 Wu H. (2017, November 10). Breathing in Delhi air equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day.
 Santoni M. (2016, April 26). Study: Just breathing in Downtown Pittsburgh can be like smoking most of a cigarette.