Clearing the air
Reports of air pollution in India and China have dominated the news. Photos show thick haze obscuring landmarks like the Taj Mahal and people wearing masks to protect themselves from the air they breathe. This month, air quality was so poor in Delhi, Lucknow, and other areas of northern India that schools and construction sites were closed and residents were urged to stay indoors.
These articles highlight the serious effects of air pollution in megacities in Asia but air pollution occurs worldwide in both rural and urban areas. Over 80% of the world’s urban population is exposed to air pollution that exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended limits.
What is air pollution?
Outdoor air pollution is a mix of chemicals, particulate matter, and biological materials that react with each other to form tiny hazardous particles.
Air pollution from traffic, factories, and power generation from coal-fired power plants is on the rise in rapidly developing African countries like Egypt and Nigeria, although data is still limited. Researcher Mathew Evans of the University of York in the United Kingdom was quoted in The Guardian:
London and Lagos have entirely different air quality problems. In cities such as London, it’s mainly due to the burning of hydrocarbons for transport. African pollution isn’t like that. There is the burning of rubbish, cooking indoors with inefficient fuel stoves, millions of steel diesel electricity generators, cars which have had the catalytic converters removed and petrochemical plants, all pushing pollutants into the air over the cities. Compounds such as sulphur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide, that haven’t been issues in western cities for decades, may be a significant problem in African cities. We simply don’t know.
In 2015, forest fires in Indonesia blanketed south Asia in smoke for weeks. Fires set to clear forests and old crops contribute to air pollution in rural areas, but poor air quality also results from natural events. This map from the WHO shows air pollution from both human activity and natural sources. Air pollution near deserts, for example, comes partly from dust storms.
Air pollution and your health
The WHO estimates that outdoor air pollution caused around 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. It contributes to breathing problems, chronic diseases such as asthma, increased hospitalization, and deaths from strokes, heart disease, and lung cancer.
The concentration of particulate matter (PM) is a key air quality indicator since it is the most common air pollutant that affects short-term and long-term health. Two sizes of particulate matter are used to analyze air quality; fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm or PM2.5 and coarse particles with a diameter of less than 10 µm or PM10. PM2.5 particles are more concerning because their small size allows them to travel deeper into the cardiopulmonary system. The World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines recommend that the annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 10 µm/m3 and 20 µm/m3 for PM10.
Indoor air pollution (also known as household air pollution) especially affects women and children. Inefficient cookstoves that burn charcoal or wood cause pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. Each year, over 4 million people die prematurely from household air pollution.
Before you travel
It may not be possible to avoid air pollution when you travel but you can minimize your exposure by staying up to date with local air quality advisories.
Check the air quality at your destination before your trip. Our Country Health Advice database includes tips on how to minimize your exposure to air pollution. It also lists up to 5 cities with high PM10 readings for countries reporting data to the World Health Organization. You can find information for a specific city using the BreatheLife city air pollution data search. In some cities, air quality updates are available on social media.
It’s always a good idea to visit your health practitioner before you travel. Here are some things to consider during your appointment:
- If you have a lung condition, ask your practitioner how to manage your condition abroad. Travellers with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should carry an inhaler, antibiotic, or oral steroid. Consult your doctor to see what is best for you.
- Older travellers with pre-existing conditions should get a physical exam that includes a stress and lung capacity test prior to departure.
- Newborns and young children should minimize exposure as much as possible. If you are travelling with young children, consider avoiding areas with poor air quality.
- Your practitioner may also recommend wearing a mask.
While you’re travelling, follow local air quality advisories and stay indoors on days with low air quality. Children, older travellers, and people with lung conditions should be especially conscious of air quality warnings.
Learn more about air pollution
Air pollution – IAMAT
City air pollution data search – BreatheLife
How the world’s poorer countries breathe worse air, in charts and maps – The Washington Post
Air pollution goes back way further than you think – Smithsonian
By Daphne Hendsbee.
Photo by Foto-Rabe, Pixabay.