WHO report: Air quality is bad enough for all of us to be extremely concerned

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On 27 September 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) publish an air quality model to calculate air pollution all over the world.

The model is based on data derived from satellite measurements, air transport models and ground station monitors for more than 3000 locations, both rural and urban. It was developed by WHO in collaboration with the University of Bath, United Kingdom.

“The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director General at WHO.

The result of the model is worrying: 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.

Air pollution’s toll on human health

Air pollution is one of the most common cause of death in the world. As society advance, more energy is needed. This means more fumes, more fuel, more smoke from combustion of fossil fuels are produced each year. These hazardous chemicals escape to the environment has been negatively affect our air quality.

Air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), differ in their chemical composition, reaction properties, emission, time of disintegration and ability to diffuse in long or short distances.

In a recent research, some of the most damaging air pollutants are:

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

Nitrogen oxides are poisonous gases that contribute to acid rain and suffocating smog, are found in the fumes of cars, trucks, tractors, boats and industrial processes such as power generation and cement-making.

NOx can cause breathing problems, headaches, chronically reduced lung function, eye irritation, loss of appetite and corroded teeth.

Ozone (O3)

In the stratosphere, this triple-atom molecule of oxygen is naturally occurring and protects us from the Sun’s ultra-violet radiation. But at ground level, where it is formed in a chemical reaction between sunlight and exhaust gases, ozone is a component of photochemical smog.

High ozone levels can cause breathing problems, trigger asthmatic attacks and worsen respiratory disease.

Particulate matters

Respirable particulate matter is produced from combustion processes, vehicles and industrial sources. WHO’s model focuses on particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres is PM2.5.

Air pollution has both acute and chronic effects on human health, affecting a number of different systems and organs, from minor upper respiratory irritation to chronic respiratory and heart disease, lung cancer, acute respiratory infections in children and chronic bronchitis in adults, aggravating pre-existing heart and lung disease, or asthmatic attacks. In addition, short- and long-term exposures have also been linked with premature mortality and reduced life expectancy.

Deaths relating to air pollution

“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and the older adults,” adds Dr Bustreo. “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”

WHO has gather shocking statistic relating to cases of death from diseases caused by air pollution.

  • About 3 million deaths a year are linked to air pollution.
  • In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6% of all global deaths) were associated air pollution.
  • 94 per cent are due to noncommunicable diseases – notably cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Air pollution also increases the risks for acute respiratory infections.

Major sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities. However, not all air pollution originates from human activity. For example, air quality can also be influenced by dust storms, particularly in regions close to deserts.

Air pollution in Malaysia

Nearly 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with nearly 2 out of 3 occurring in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. The problem is most acute in cities, but air in rural areas is worse than many think.

Fortunately, according to the Department of Environment of Malaysia, our Air Pollutant Index is at a safe level of 38 average.

Air Pollutant Index (API) is an indicator for the air quality status at any particular area. The API value is calculated based on average concentration of air pollutants namely SO2, NO2, CO, O3 and PM10. The air pollutant with the highest concentration (dominant pollutant) will determine the API value. Normally, concentration of particulate matter , PM10 is the highest among other pollutants and determines the API value.

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