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Is the Health Risk from Air Pollution Increasing?

While the health effects of air pollution around the globe have long been a concern, accelerated levels in the early part of 2017 have once again brought the issue into focus.

An increasing trend towards wood burners in London raised fresh fears over the winter. According to campaigners, a perfect storm of airborne and vehicle pollutants led to the city exceeding its annual allowance for air quality just five days into the new year.

In February, Beijing residents were once again forced to confront the worrying link between air pollution and health as the three so-called ‘smog highways’ that criss-cross the region funnelled noxious particulates from local factories into the Chinese capital.


Is the health risk from air pollution increasing? A new WHO air quality model confirms that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.


Regional concentration  

India has now overtaken China in terms of the number of deaths due to outdoor air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Disease project. Its published data reveals that India witnessed 3,280 premature deaths (fatalities due to ozone concentration and particulate matter concentration) per day in 2015, whereas China had recorded 3,230.

According to the WHO, some of the highest levels of air pollution occur in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, with two out of three deaths attributed to these regions.

That’s no surprise to the residents of Hong Kong, where the correlation between air pollution and poor health remains a big concern.

Air quality is measured through average annual levels of PM2.5s, tiny pollutant particles that can embed themselves deep in the lungs. While these particulates may be generated naturally – for example, via dust storms or forest fires – the majority are created by motor vehicles and industrial activity, as well as the burning of household fuel and waste

Clean Air Network, a local NGO, has found that roadside pollution levels in the city have exceeded acceptable WHO levels for the past five years. In certain Hong Kong neighbourhoods, levels at times have been 2.5 times higher than the recommended amount.

Much of the blame is laid on the rising ownership of private cars (numbers have reportedly grown by 4.6% per year for the past decade), as well as a lack of regulation over fuels for ocean-going vessels; it’s a problem that shows little sign of going away.

Bangkok, however, appears to be cleaning up its act. Having imposed tighter controls over vehicle emissions and converting the Thai capital’s buses to gas, pollution levels have reportedly reduced considerably. However, more congested and industrial areas of the city do still frequently notch up unhealthy readings on the daily Air Quality Index.

Pathum Thani, Huaykwang, Ratchada and Praram 9, and other areas outside the city tend to register moderate to good readings, but some critics argue that patchy coverage continues to distort the true picture for Bangkok residents.

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Health implications

Is the health risk from air pollution increasing? While the air may be murky, it’s clear there are significant health problems caused by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It links three million deaths a year to exposure to outdoor air pollution. However, it makes the point that indoor air pollution is just as deadly. And it is a problem that the WHO claims is getting worse.

The risk of air pollution on human health is well documented. This can include:

  • Short-term allergy-like symptoms
  • Serious respiratory conditions – such as asthma, bronchitis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema and pneumonia
  • Lung-based and other cancers
  • Heart-related diseases
  • Stroke

While it is still in its tentative stages, new research also suggests that exposure to particulates may accelerate cognitive aging and increase a person’s susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.


Counter measures

For the most part, air pollutants remain invisible – so how can you combat the health problems caused by air pollution?

Some key tips include:

  • Investing in an home HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter
  • Wearing a high-quality face mask
  • Keeping air-boosting house plants
  • Using backstreets to avoid fumes on main thoroughfares
  • Exercising earlier in the day (when traffic levels are lower)
  • Checking pollution levels before leaving home or exercising
  • Heading out after rainfall (which disperses particulates)
  • Researching the best mode of transport – for example, walking can expose you to fewer pollutants than sitting in traffic

At your fingertips

Smartphone apps have brought air quality to the mainstream, offering users unprecedented access to essential data about the potentially harmful particulates around them at any given time. Products such as Plume or the Air Quality Index BreezoMeter offer excellent global coverage, enabling people to make more informed choices about their environment.