Impact of littering on chronic respiratory diseases Most people litter every day and they dismiss their careless actions as harmless but research has shown that whether littering is intentional or unintentional, large or small, it drastically affects the environment for years to come.

Costa Matyavira, Correspondent

According to the World Health Organisation, chronic respiratory diseases (CRDs) are diseases of the airways and other structures of the lung. Some of the most common ones are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), occupational lung diseases and pulmonary hypertension. CRDs are not curable, those affected rely on various forms of management to survive.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common lung disease that causes restricted airflow and breathing problems. It is a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema refers to damage of tiny air sacs of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the airways. WHO insists that COPD is more than a “smoker’s cough.”

The CDC explains that the main cause of COPD is tobacco smoking. Other risk factors of COPD as propounded by WHO include tobacco smoking or passive exposure to second hand smoke, asthma in childhood, air pollution, occupational chemicals and dusts, and frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood that prevent maximum lung growth.

Signs and symptoms of COPD according to the CDC include

  1. a) Difficulties in breathing during daily activities
  2. b) Wheezing and a continuous cough that contains mucus. Other symptoms include, lack of energy and loss of body weight.

WHO propounds that people with COPD can easily have pneumonia, lung cancer, heart problems, weak muscles and brittle bones, depression and anxiety.


Littering is a deliberate act of discarding rubbish on clean places causing them to be untidy. A study by KAB in America states that litter includes empty bottles, plastic bags, boxes and mainly cigarette butts. A report in 2024 by states that cigarette butts are actually the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world, with about 4.5 trillion butts polluting the global environment.  According to Texas Disposal System, littering results in air pollution, land pollution and ocean pollution. Some of the reasons why people litter include laziness, lack of knowledge on the effects of littering, failure to enforce laws and taking littering as a culture.

According to fact finder, littering can cause and propagate effects of COPD in the following ways.

Open burning of litter such as cigarette butts and other forms of plastics can release toxic chemicals and fine particles into the air. A lot of people suffer from passive smoking. This causes respiratory tract infections such as flu, common colds and acute bronchitis. Persistent burning of litter exposes people to polluted air for long periods. Continuous exposure to polluted air causes acute bronchitis (temporary inflammation of the airways) to become chronic bronchitis (permanent inflammation of the airways).

Moreover, continuous breathing of dirty air causes permanent damage to lung air sacs which is known as emphysema. Due to damaged air sacs (emphysema) the lung loses its elasticity and fails to fully expand and contract during a normal breathing cycle. When emphysema combines with chronic bronchitis, the resultant condition is COPD. This is illustrated by a simple equation.

Chronic bronchitis + emphysema = COPD

Polluted air also triggers asthma which is a risk factor of chronic bronchitis.

According to the World Economic Forum, open burning of waste is common around the world and is a major source of air pollution. It means a lot of people are exposed to second hand (passive) smoking and  are at risk of developing COPD and other respiratory tract infections.

The forum also insists that waste plastic also causes climate change. Waste plastic washed away into the ocean releases gases (methane and ethylene) under the effect of sunlight energy which causes global warming. According to WHO, change of climate causes air pollution, veld fires, droughts, cyclones and heat waves that can cause and increase effects of COPD.

Smoke from veld fires, dust from droughts and heat waves also increase carbon dioxide levels and reduce oxygen levels in the atmosphere. This further affects the breathing cycle of people already suffering from this condition by causing further shortness of breath and amplified wheezing. This can lead to complications such as lung cancer, pneumonia, heart failure and eventually death.

People with COPD need a balanced diet. Lack of food leads to increased weight loss, lack of energy and swelling of ankles.

WHO Cluster Lead of communicable and non-communicable diseases, Dr Anderson Chimusoro recently said at the current rate, it is predicted that NCDs such as COPD would be the main cause of death and illnesses in the African region by 2030 if urgent steps are not taken.

However, this is also a global prediction.


Monthly continental clean-up day campaigns such as Africa Clean-up Day should be implemented so as to counter the rate of littering in each continent. This is another major Net Zero measure which Climate Action should take into consideration. It is a quicker method of reducing the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and ethylene in the atmosphere so as to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees celsius as per Paris Agreement by the UN.

Cleaning continents on a monthly basis speeds up recycling of plastics thereby reducing the amount of garbage on the environment. Getting rid of garbage assists in eradicating diseases such as malaria and cholera which can further compromise the immune systems of people with CRDs. This slows down the morbidity and mortality rates from COPD.

*Costa Matyavira is a researcher and can be contacted on +263778949614 .

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