Benchmarking air pollution levels – Health and socio-economic impact, and solutions

May 18, 2019 by BPIR.com Limited

Article contributed by Dr. Almas Tazein, BPIR.com Limited


Somewhere in the middle of a city suburb, she lay dispassionately, watching the hazy sky from her sanatorium window, inhaling oxygen from a metallic chamber piped next to her. She desperately needed immaculate fresh air. It would be a concurrent treatment for salvaging her progressing lung disease. But the cityscape couldn’t care less to give it to her. It was a luxury that she could not afford.

How many of us cringe before leaving for work every morning? No, not because of an impending meeting with the bosses. But because in a few moments we’ll be meeting the black angel of misery, wrapped in smoke, dust and poisonous gases. And, we surrender to it.

Were we humans created to bear all of this every day? No. We weren’t. Not even for a single day.

And if we’re sitting inside our cars and homes, there is a high probability that after knowing the facts here, we won’t be as comfortable.

  • Here, we will uncover how this hovering perennial challenge called air pollution detrimentally influences our health, environment, and ultimately human productivity.
  • Also, the international gold standards against which we can gauge our pollution status.
  • THE SOLUTION TRIAD – educate oneself with the best international performers in air pollution crisis management.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century
American essayist and lecturer once said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

In the 21st century, we call it, benchmarking.

Satellite measurements by Nasa researchers show that the Earth’s surface has been warming globally with 17 of the 18 warmest years on record occurring since 2000.

How Are Air Pollution and Climate Change Linked?

United Nations recalls that ‘cities and pollution contribute to climate change. According to UN Habitat, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions’.

Black carbon (soot) is a component of air pollutants, generally comes from vehicle emissions, especially diesel, burning wood for cooking, or coal for home heating.

Because of its dark colour, black carbon is very good at absorbing sunlight, leading to an overall effect of warming the climate. It is estimated that it is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in its contribution to global temperature increases (Bond et al, 2013).

Based on a study by Marshall Burke, an economist at Stanford, it is estimated that the gap in per capita income in the richest and poorest countries is 25 percentage points larger than it would have been without climate change. That is because poor countries are disproportionately concentrated around the equator where even a slight increase in temperature can be devastating to crop production, human health and labour productivity.

India, the world’s second most populous country, would have been 30% richer without climate change, the study concluded. (Based on data from 1961-2000). (Marshall Burke and Noah Diffenbaugh.).

As for the countries away from the equator, we have yet other threatening reasons to worry about courtesy of climate change.

Of all air pollution measures, PM2.5 is believed to pose the greatest health threat.

Insights into PM2.5

  • PM pollutant group affects the most people globally.
  • Particulate Matter (PM), is a term used for particles found in the air, including dust, soot, dirt, smoke, and liquid droplets.
  • 2.5 annotation designates the size 2.5 micrometres (µm) or less.
  • Often described as fine particles, they are up to 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
  • PM2.5 is reported as a mass per volume of air – µg/m3.
  • PM2.5 is too small to be filtered by our nose and lungs.
  • Sources: PM derives from a wide range of both anthropogenic and natural sources.
  • Common direct (primary) sources include combustion of fuels
    (such as petrol, wood, diesel, coal), materials such as rubber and plastic.
  • Motor vehicle engines, power plant emissions, industrial processes, dust from construction and demolition sites,
    bushfires agriculture, and firecrackers
    all cumulatively result in ambient or outdoor air pollution.
  • Sources of household or indoor pollution – burning of solid fuels in open fire cooking stoves. PM2.5 also develops through other pollutants reacting in the atmosphere (secondary).
  • Black carbon (soot) is a component of PM2.5.

A study published in 2019 proves that there is a statistically significant negative relationship between PM2.5 concentration and people’s happiness and productivity levels.

Other Considerations

  • Research suggests the most damaging along with PM is carbon monoxide (CO), mainly associated with petrol vehicles. It leads to worsening of heart disease, drowsiness, also linked with learning difficulties.
  • In some air monitoring stations, pollutants are also measured in terms of visibility reduction.
  • In large parts of Europe and the U.S., the main air pollutants of concern are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone, so looking at PM2.5 only does not give a representative picture of air quality and health risks in some regions.

Lack of visible smog is no indication that the air is healthy.


As a much-needed reality check, we need to know (more than ever) that the World Health Organisation estimates that 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits.


WHO: In 2016, household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels was responsible for 3.8 million deaths, and 7.7% of global mortality


It can easily be argued that air pollution is no more a local issue, but a global public health concern – WHO Interactive global ambient air pollution map.

To see whether the air is safe in your region or country there are a number of websites that display data from air quality monitoring stations such as IQAir’s real-time AirVisual Earth view,

World’s Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index and

Plume Labs Worldwide Air Pollution Maps

Figure 1. United States Air Quality Index

WHO recommends an annual mean exposure threshold of PM2.5 at 10 ?g/m³ to minimize the health risk whilst advising that no level of exposure has been shown to be free of health impact.

(Fig 1, Fig 2, Fig 3, Fig 4 – Images taken from +IQ Air AirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report – Region & City PM2.5 Ranking)

Figure 2. Global map of estimated PM2.5 exposure by country/region in 2018

This global map provides an overview of the average, estimated PM2.5 exposure by country/region in 2018. The estimation is calculated from available city data as a regional sample and then weighted by population. Countries and regions that remain grey had no or limited PM2.5 data available for 2018.

Let’s see how some of the capital cities in the world rank.


Figure 3. World’s top 10 most polluted capital cities.

(Vertical line indicates World Health Organisation PM2.5 Target at 10 ?g/m³).


Figure 4. World’s top 10 cleanest capital cities

Countries from Asia and the Middle East occupy most of the top of this regional capital city ranking, with Delhi and Dhaka’s values both 50% higher than the 3rd ranking capital, Kabul. Only 9 out of 62 regional capitals included here have an annual mean PM2.5 level within the WHO air quality guideline of 10µg/m³.

PM2.5 Heath Adversities

PM’s relatively microscopic size enables it to both remain suspended in the air for long periods, and be absorbed deep into the bloodstream upon inhalation, causing a wide range of short-and long-term health effects like:

  • Irritation of the eye, nose and throat
  • Asthma attacks
  • Coughing, chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Respiratory illnesses such bronchitis, and emphysema (type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Impact of the exposure is exacerbated in people with heart or lung diseases
  • Children (since their immune systems are underdeveloped) and older adults are more vulnerable to the pollutants
  • Vehicle pollution results in 4 million child asthma cases annually, i.e. it results in about 11,000 cases of asthma in children every day. A report from The Guardian states that these results are found from nations having pollution levels well below the established WHO levels, suggesting the enormity of the harm caused by the toxic air.
  • Regular hospital visits
  • Cellular and genetic damage
  • Premature death
  • According to researchers, teenagers exposed to PM2.5 are 45% more likely to have symptoms of psychotic experiences like hearing voices and paranoia. Nitrogen dioxide emitted from diesel vehicles are one of the major reasons for the same. Besides, the obvious respiratory illnesses, air pollution also reaches the brain and is linked to causing depression, dementia, etc.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ammonia in Air and Respiratory Concerns

(Source: TIMES NEWS NETWORK, TOI, April 2019).

A study conducted by Mumbai-based researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay (IIT-B), National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), and the Sustainable Approach for Green Environment
(SAGE) found that it isn’t just particulate matter in the city’s air that is a cause of concern. Concentration of ammonia (NH3) in the air is a cause of some of the respiratory illnesses.

The sources of ammonia were the fertilizer units in certain areas, and solid waste, according to the founder of SAGE. The study found that 45% of population inhabiting in the area around the fertilizer plant was exposed to illnesses. In a particular location, the fertilizer plant was 10km away, yet the concentration was high due to high population density.

Sewage drains and solid waste lead to high levels of ammonia in isolated places. Ammonia disperses faster, and has short-term impacts, according to the director, NEERI.

Climate Change: The Clock is Ticking!

Read an IPCC special report on the impact of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, 2018. Global warming of 1.5% could be reached by 2030 if we stay on the same trajectory with devasting consequences to wildlife & many communities. To prevent irreversible damage from Climate Change we need to ACT NOW!


“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy … and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation … and we scientists don’t know how to do that” – James Gus Speth, American environmental lawyer and advocate.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist and now a global hero speaks at the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference and at a follow-up interview speaking far more sense than the various Governments and policy makers that have led us to this mess.


The green warrior, Greta Thunberg, at the European Parliament, 16 April, 2019.

More than 9,000 Londoners are estimated to die prematurely each year from long-term exposure to pollution. Recently, in April 2019, environmental protesters in central London highlighted demands for the British government to declare a climate emergency. The Parliament declared a climate emergency, following in the steps of Scotland and Wales and major British cities.

Air Pollution and Human Intelligence. Could There Be a Connection?

In 2017, Xi Chen, a public health researcher at Yale University conducted a study on over 25,000 people in China. People who had been exposed to air pollution the longest were seeing the steepest drop in their cognitive test scores (maths and language skills), roughly equivalent to a loss of one year of schooling.

The study found that the cognitive impact may be more pronounced in cities where dense traffic, narrow streets and high-rise buildings often trap pollutants at street level. For instance, in London, 95 per cent of the population live in areas that exceed the WHO guidelines for PM2.5.
The mayor of London made air pollution a priority, carrying out audits on air quality around primary schools, introducing Ultra Low Emission Zones, and re-fitting diesel buses.

Fecht, a medical researcher at Imperial College London explains that polluted air leads to oxygen deficiency, impacting brain functions.

Researchers from Imperial College London and King’s College London
found a probable association between air pollution and dementia. That study published in September 2018, followed 131,000 patients over an average of seven years.

Severe Air Pollution Affects the Productivity of Workers

Economists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) completed an extensive study, published in January 2019, and it reveals that exposure to air pollution over several weeks is not just unhealthy, it can also reduce employee productivity. An increase in PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic metre sustained over 25 days, reduces daily output by 1 per cent, harming firms and workers.

Polluted Air May Pollute Our Morality

Exposure to air pollution, even imagining exposure to air pollution, may lead to unethical behavior, crime and cheating, according to new findings.

THE SOLUTION TRIAD – Governments, Communities, and Individuals

For the highly toxic PM, most governments have created regulations – both for their emissions and for the ambient concentration of particles. Technology is being used for reducing air pollution in smart and sustainable future cities.

Top leadership level:

  1. Governments, international bodies and industrial regulatory authorities need to converge holistically.
  2. Public and private forces need to construct collaborative policies (according to the who, health benefits far outweigh the costs of meeting climate change goals).
  3. A centrally monitored network of clean air zones for near or beyond dangerous limits,
  4. Rigorous enforcement, and regulatory compliance audits will help both – the policy makers and breakers.
  5. Urban and agricultural waste management systems need to be within safety borders.
  6. Think tanks need to execute urban planning policies at a benchmarking level.
  7. Motivating citizens to be pro-active towards a truly civil society by encouraging connected and clean mobility solutions:
  • Prioritizing shared and public modes of travel as the preferred mode.
  • Marketing of electric cars at a large scale with easy payment options and credit points, a relaxed tax system, ban on highly polluting vehicles,
  1. Replacing wood fired cooking with low-emissions sources such as solar cookers, petroleum-based stoves or other modern technology would would save millions of lives.
    (Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd).
  2. Air quality forecasts and actionable health recommendations that allow individuals and organizations to reduce their exposure to air pollutants will help.
  3. Some European countries promote cycling for everyone as daily transport mode (PRESTO), reducing air pollution and encouraging healthy lifestyle.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to New York on 23 September 2019 with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.

Community level
best practices
include resilient measures that can bring solidarity, like:

  1. installation of plants for composting of waste,
  2. deploying an air quality monitor in the neighbourhood to accelerate access to real-time information and align it with national air and fuel quality standards,
  3. public education campaigns and health awareness initiatives

At an individual level, we are the beneficent and beneficiary, both.

Climate action is not a one model solution, but do commit to altering your personal choices that can have a significant impact:

  1. Indoor air purifiers, outdoor masks and scarves.
  2. Choosing clean modes of transport (walking to work, cycling, driving an electric vehicle
  3. Use public transport, where available
  4. If you have a young child with you, try and lift them up above the level of vehicle exhausts
  5. Limit car use on highly polluted days.
  6. Supporting local air quality initiatives

There is hope if governments commit to strategic planning to deal with the air pollution exigency and utilize technology for its intended use – to make our lives healthier.

Political commitment and cross-sector partnerships are the unequivocal key factors to reduce pollution.

Let’s start with NEW ZEALAND, nurturing the cleanest capital city, Wellington, in the world (2018).

  1. Ministry of Transport, New Zealand has announced its Electric Vehicles Programme, which aims to increase the uptake of electric vehicles in New Zealand.
  2. The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) by the Ministry for the Environment, New Zealand is the Government’s main tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions. This price on emissions is intended to create a financial incentive for businesses who emit greenhouse gases to invest in technologies and practices that reduce emissions. It also encourages forest planting by allowing eligible foresters to earn New Zealand emission units (NZUs) as their trees grow and absorb carbon dioxide.
  3. The government is investigating the potential of second-generation transport fuels derived from diverse non-food based renewable sources such as biomass, woody biomass and landfill gas.
  4. The government introduced a requirement for the fuel economy of vehicles to be displayed at their time of sale and has created a FuelSaver website where the public can compare fuel efficiency of vehicles

 

CHINA

Of the 50 most polluted cities in the world China has 22 cities represented. China is tackling this issue by:

  1. Reducing the production of steel and of coal-fired electricity, replacing coal wind and solar power.
  2. Nationwide network of monitors tracking levels of PM2.5, making the data from those monitors publicly available, with measurements taken outside thousands of factories. People with smartphones in China can check local air quality in real time, see whether a particular facility is breaching emissions limits, and report violators to local enforcement agencies via social media. (National Geographic, 2017).
  3. The Smog-Free Tower cleans 30,000 cubic meters of air every hour, the smog particles are then compressed and used to make cufflinks and rings.
  4. Electric buses for Beijing are underway.
  5. China conducts a monthly air quality ranking of 169 cities to pressurise local authorities to clean up dirty skies.
 

INDIA

Of the 10 most polluted cities in the world in 2018, India had 7 cities represented. Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world. Some of the changes being implemented include:

  1. Odd-Even road rationing scheme – Cars with license plates ending in an odd number and even number were allowed to be used on alternate days.
  2. During the Diwali festival, air pollution surged to unhealthy levels as a result of the burning of firecrackers. As damage control measures, the government banned the entry of heavy and medium goods vehicles into the national capital for three days. Vehicles carrying perishable food items, tankers carrying petroleum tankers were exempted.
  3. Authorities halted operations of industries using coal and biomass as fuel for 10 days.
  4. Civil construction was suspended and all stone crushers and hot mix plants were shut down. Workers of Public Works Department (PWD) sprinkled water in areas to settle the dust. (Money Control, 2018).
  5. India will soon adopt the Bharat Stage VI (BS-VI), for regulating emission standards. Under BS-VI, cars, especially diesel cars will have to undergo significant changes to the engine to conform to the norms. Delhi already has BS-VI fuel on sale, in which the sulphur content of diesel is < 10mg/Kg, which directly reduces the PM10 and PM2.5 emissions of diesel vehicles.
  6. Recently, the Union government approved the second phase of the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles scheme (FAME-II) and the National Mission on Transformative Mobility and Battery Storage. With these two movements, and a focus on transportation metamorphosis through electrification, India is exploring to enter into a sustainable future with viable opportunities to rely on.
  7. Forecasts indicate that EVs (Electric Vehicle) can reach price parity with ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles by 2024.

 

FRANCE

France is addressing pollution in a multitude of ways.

  1. Coloured stickers displaying car emissions are mandatory, helping the authorities to classify cars and issue targeted bans to the most polluting vehicles
  2. Environmentally healthier transport mode options promoted.
  3. Cars manufactured before 1997, and diesels registered before 2001 restricted from entering the city centre on weekdays between 8am-8pm, facing heavy fines for not abiding.
  4. By 2024 diesels, and petrol cars by 2030 will be completely removed off the streets.
  5. Cycle tracks and bus lanes are given more preference by provision of more space, than for cars.
  6. Attractive subsidies by city council to motivate citizens to choose alternate transport.
  7. Alluring, but conditional benefits offered to buy a bike, a public transport pass or a car sharing scheme, the condition – abandoning their motor vehicles and motorbikes.
  8. Taxi drivers are given grants to buy environmentally-friendly vehicles, and the installation of electric charging points is funded.
  9. (Source: BBC).

 

SOUTH KOREA

South Korea is battling pollution through the following approaches:

  1. Use of artificial rain in order to reduce air pollution in Seoul
  2. During emergency levels, limiting the number of diesel cars and reducing the dust from construction sites and power stations are put in place
  3. Retirement of old coal-burning power plants
  4. Installation of high-capacity air purifiers in more daycare centres. And schools
  5. In collaboration with China, warning dissemination technology is being established.(Al-Jazeera, 2019). Sirens go off and people are sent a text by the government warning people not to go outside.

 

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Abu Dhabi was at No. 9 in 2018’s World’s top 10 most polluted capital cities. It devised a system that can be an epitome of what strategic planning during air environmental crisis should be like.

Air pollution was identified as a primary environmental threat to public health in the Abu Dhabi State of the Environment Report 2017. Developed in partnership with key public and private stakeholders, an Air Emissions Inventory has helped produce over 50 high-definition sector and pollutant specific Air Emission Maps that identify the location and intensity of each emission source in Abu Dhabi.

The emission inventory shows that oil and gas production and road transport are the main contributors to emissions of regulated pollutants in Abu Dhabi. By identifying the main contributors to emissions, it is now possible to work systematically to reduce these emissions through working closely with the public and private sector and wider community.

In Dubai, a similar approach is being developed but it still has a long way to go to bring pollution down to healthy levels with pollution levels for PM2.5 at 55.3 in 2018 (meaning on most days of the year people are breathing in unhealthy air). This average is higher than Abu Dhabi’s rating of 48.8. A positive step forward has been publicly sharing the live data from 13 air pollution monitoring stations but so far the results for the most dangerous type of pollution of PM10 and PM2.5 are not shown.

 

UNITED KINGDOM

The UK is the first nation to have officially declared a state of climate emergency on 1 May 2019. MPs are calling on the government to make changes that include setting a new target of reaching net zero emissions before 2050.

  1. The U.K. government plans on banning all new diesel and gas cars from roadways by 2040, with half of the vehicles being hybrid or electric by 2030.
  2. The Road to Zero initiative is a move to encourage people on the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles. (Interesting Engineering, 2018).
  3. In April 2019, London introduced Ultra Low Emission Zone to combat air pollution.
    Motorists of older cars need to pay a new charge of approximately 15 euros to enter the city centre –at the same times as paying a pre-existing congestion pricing, which was implemented in 2003.
  4. Since the afternoon of 1 May, 2019, Britain had gone a week without burning coal for electricity for the first time since the 19th century. The government says Britain will eliminate coal from its power supply by 2025, generating more power from wind, solar and other renewable sources.
  5. Councils in the city are threatening to clamp down on the good old ice cream trucks, as the vendor’s eco-credentials have been unable to escape scrutiny because of the fears that pollutants from the truck’s diesel engines may be endangering lives. ‘The local authorities are cracking down on diesel vehicles running their engines for hours’ – Caroline Russell, a Green Party member of the London Assembly.
  6. Threat of flooding: According to The Environment Agency (EA), communities near the coast or rivers could be forced to move as England prepares to counter average global temperature of up to 4°C. The EA’s new climate strategy estimates an average annual investment of £1 billion over the next 50 years in England, for the traditional defenses.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION – EUROPE: TRANSPORT AND HEALTH

Evidence shows that air pollution at current levels in European cities is responsible for a significant burden of deaths, hospital admissions and exacerbation of symptoms. WHO – Europe:

  • promotes sustainable transport for health and the environment through an integrated approach, which prevents and reduces the health effects associated with current transport patterns;
  • assists its Member States in fully considering transport policies’ implications for health, the environment and sustainable development, and supports them in defining and managing mobility policies that benefit health.

Conclusion

Civilized. Responsible. Intelligent. It is high time we justify these virtues by collectively outsmarting the air pollution menace to enhance our life-span on this earth. We need to wash away the dark gray trails for us to perform at our optimum capacities, accelerate our nation’s growth, and rescue our battered planet.

It will need the relentless efforts of international bodies, national governments and local communities. And our individual conscience.

The reason is evident. Look up – our skies aren’t blue, look within – our health isn’t pink, and look around – our economies aren’t green either.

The time has come for this poetic justice. Afterall, we cannot be forever running anxiously in search of greener-cleaner pastures. We need to take action, here, and now.

As a final recommendation, find time to watch the following documentary:

Pic source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [CC BY 3.0 au]

Sir David Attenborough, an English broadcaster and natural historian, presents the compelling and poignant

Climate Change The Facts (2019) Documentary
(Rights owned by BBC).

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