SEATTLE — Air pollution is a growing health concern, already the cause of 6.5 million deaths each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) 2016 database, which consists of 3,000 cities in 103 countries, revealed an eight percent increase in pollutant levels over the last five years. About 80 percent of people in urban areas are living in areas that exceed the WHO’s air quality standards. Air pollution in developing countries is particularly concerning with 98 percent of cities exceeding the acceptable pollution limits by five to ten times.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution is measured in terms of microscopic particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and includes pollutants such as nitrates, carbon and sulfates. The WHO has imposed limits on the acceptable concentrations of PM due to its pervasive and damaging nature. Excessive PM has the potential to cause cardiac, chronic obstructive pulmonary or acute respiratory conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and asthma.
A study of respiratory and cardiac function in children aged between 4 and 17 who were exposed to high concentration of pollutants in Delhi revealed a two-to-four-fold increase in risk. Air pollution also significantly diminishes quality of life due to restrictions on outdoor activities. School closures have become a common occurrence in countries battling smog.
Why is air pollution the worst in developing countries?
The WHO database reveals a large difference in pollution levels between advanced economics and developing nations. Cities in Nigeria, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are among the 20 most polluted cities in the WHO database. Coal power plants, toxic vehicle fumes from low-quality diesel, lack of effective emission standards, dust from construction sites, indoor cook stoves, burning of agricultural, animal waste and trash containing plastics, metals and rubber are the leading causes of greenhouse emissions in these regions.
Delhi was rated the most polluted city among megacities, a term used by the WHO for cities with more than 14 million people. Data collected by local Delhi authorities during Diwali celebrations in October 2016 revealed alarming PM10 and PM2.5 levels of at least 1,442 and 748, respectively, well in excess of the acceptable levels of 50 and 25. With approximately nine million vehicles pumping emissions into the air, the Delhi High Court likened the situation to being inside a gas chamber.
Beijing and the Hebei province of China recorded PM concentrations 20 times higher than acceptable in early 2017. A red alert was issued in December 2016 when dense smog enveloped the region, affecting 460 million people. India and China’s air pollution crisis is further inflamed by extreme reliance on coal to support economic development and growing energy needs. The Indian government plans to increase its coal usage to a billion tons by 2019.
Onitsha, Nigeria is the most polluted city in the world, exceeding acceptable annual PM levels by almost 30 times. The second most polluted city, Zabol, Iran, gets 120 days of dust winds. The situation is further exacerbated by the evaporation of its Hamoun wetlands. With pollution levels surpassing acceptable daily levels by 40 times, it has become a cause for disruption. While a few still believe the haze is harmless winter fog, the problem is looming as citizens use face masks to escape the hazards of air pollution.
What is the good news?
Greater public awareness has led to the realization of what is at stake. People are publicly asserting their discontent. Li Guixin of Shijiazhuang, China filed a lawsuit against the government to enhance the consciousness of the perils endured by the country’s people. People are more vigilant about the governments’ efforts, with most checking their smartphones daily for air quality updates.
The academic community is also actively voicing concerns, from studies publishing the harmful effects of smog to a Chinese surgeon expressing discontent through poetry. The poem, “I Long To Be King,” widely circulated in Chinese social media and published in the CHEST Journal, expresses discontent about the dire health implications of pollution. Increasing public cognizance is resulting in greater government efforts to combat pollution.
China has imposed stricter regulations on the power plants in Hebei province and shut down hundreds of coal-sustained wood board plants in Xingtai. In Beijing, the government has recently committed to lowering coal consumption by an additional 30 percent, reducing overall usage to less than seven million tons, a significant improvement compared to 22 tons in 2013.
In Delhi, the supreme court has banned registration of diesel vehicles. The Indian government has also committed to halving the number of solid fuel-sustained households, eliminating subsidies for low-quality cooking gas and making clean fuel accessible. Other measures include stricter emission regulations, curbing road dust and steeper fines for burning trash.
A clear nexus exists between the rise of public dissent and government regulations aimed at alleviating the environmental crisis. This is a step forward but such regulations need to be supported by long-term infrastructural investments to effectively clear the smog that lingers over a large number of cities. Continued public pressure sustained by awareness is needed in order to effectively lift the fog of air pollution.
– Preeti Yadav