Air pollution has been a critical environmental, health, and societal topic for decades. But, despite its importance, air pollution continues to be on the top list of the major challenges that we are facing today. In fact, about 4 billion people or 92% of the population in the Asia Pacific region are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution.
Some of the leading air pollutants in the region include:
Particulate matter are fine particles that contain microscopic solids and liquid droplets. These are so small that they can be inhaled and can cause health problems such as throat irritation, cough, and damaged lung functions.
Sulfur dioxide is a type of gas that is generated during the combustion of fossil fuels. It causes coughing, mucus secretion, and intensified asthma attacks. When mixed with air and water, sulfur dioxide can produce acid rain.
VOC or volatile organic compounds are a group of gasses that are emitted into the air from products or processes. These can come from gasoline, paints, coatings, air fresheners, and hydrofluorocarbons. Common examples of VOCs are benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene. Exposure to high levels of VOC can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and skin problems.
Nitrogen Oxide is a colorless, flammable gas with a sharp odor. NO2 is released by vehicles, power plants, and industrial emissions. High levels of nitrogen oxide can damage the respiratory tract and can contribute to the severity of asthma.
The sources of these air pollutants may vary by country. But one thing is sure, urban and highly industrialized areas with high numbers of population have the highest levels of air pollution.
Air Pollution: Threats and Impacts
According to data, the most polluted country based on annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³) is Asia’s Bangladesh, while India ranks 5th on the list of capital cities for bad air. Poor air quality, when not managed properly, can be a great factor in causing and aggravating a range of health problems including asthma, cancer, pulmonary disease and heart disease. The International Agency for Research on Cancer reveals that air pollution can also cause cancer.
Scientists and other health organizations continue to put emphasis on the value of air quality and how it is an important factor for the growth and development of airborne diseases. The Harvard Chan study led by Xiao Wu and Rachel Nethery and senior author Francesca Dominici showed the connection between air pollution with an 11% increase in COVID-9 deaths for every 1 microgram/cubic meter increase in air pollution.
While the study does not reveal that poor air quality directly impacts the risk of dying from the coronavirus disease, it still shows the link between the exposure to air pollution and increased COVID-19 death rates.
Air pollution does not only have massive effects on health, it can also greatly affect Asian economies. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), air pollution is accountable for a 1% to 2.5% decrease in GDP in different Asian countries by the year 2060. These findings may come from reduced productivity and work performance, and health expenses.
Additionally, a tool developed by Greenpeace and an air quality platform, powered by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) analyzes locations and their air quality data, scientific risk models, and population data. According to the tool, air pollution has contributed to an estimated 153,600 premature deaths and economic loss of US$82.4 billion in the above Asian cities.
Managing air pollution
In 2021, The World Health Organization has established newer, more stringent global air quality guidelines to reduce the impacts of air pollution on human health, the environment and the climate. The updated WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines- the first update since 2005 provide recommendations on air quality thresholds covering some of the most monitored air pollutants: particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The reformations cut the recommended annual PM2.5 limit by half, from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
While the recommendations were established to reduce the adverse effects from exposure to the stated classical pollutants and prevent deaths, scientists express their worries that some countries might have difficulties in implementing them, given that most regions were failing to meet the older, and less stricter standards.
The UN Environment collaborated with governments and other organizations in facilitating initiatives to promote air quality awareness and mitigate air pollution. These initiatives include the Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership that enables policy makers and stakeholders to share insights and innovative tools to tackle air pollution. The Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia is a science-based network that aims to provide understanding of acid deposition problems, combat acid deposition and related atmospheric pollution. And lastly, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition that unites government, businesses, and private individuals in improving air quality.
Aside from the above, a large number of organizations in Asia are implementing holistic processes and strategies to contribute to the improvement of air quality. These include establishing green buildings and designing healthier workplaces using green technologies. With workplace health and sustainability in mind, companies like C&W Services continuously refine their spaces by installing smart technologies such as air quality monitors that provide minute-by-minute measurements on the factors affecting indoor air quality. With these technologies, organizations can quickly pinpoint issues and are empowered to make fact-based decisions to eliminate the source of air pollution, improve ventilation, and keep the levels of air quality factors always in its optimal condition.
Through their efforts to improve air quality, C&W Services and Standard Chartered Bank are able to protect health, boost their workers’ productivity, and promote greater transparency as IAQ data can also be shared publicly.
Indeed, air pollution presents serious effects on health and on the economy. But by supporting existing policies and establishing new and stricter ones, the benefits that we could reap from more breathable air are always possible to achieve:
- By the year 2030, one billion people could breathe healthier air that meets World Health Organization (WHO).
- Premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution could decrease by about a third.
- Additional 2 million premature deaths yearly due to poor indoor air quality could be prevented.
- Reduced particulate emissions would prevent glaciers from melting, thus reducing the risk of lake outburst floods.
- Managed nitrogen and sulfur levels would improve water and soil quality, resulting in healthier crops and biodiversity.
- Tackling air quality would help fulfill the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and SDG 13 (Climate Action)