Asians Choking on Dirty Air - Experts

T V Padma


YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia, Dec 18 (IPS) - Every year over half-a-million people die in Asia from breathing air loaded with pollutants that are far in excess of World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for air quality, experts warn.

The premature deaths in Asia account for half of all deaths caused by air dirtied by industrial activity and vehicular emissions said Michal Kryzanoski, regional advisor of air quality and health at WHO, warned at an international workshop on air quality which ended in this tourist city on Friday. The main aerial pollutants that Asians are exposed to are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, and particles such as soot and dust.

Of special concern are China, where levels of soot or ‘black carbon' released by its industries continue to remain high, and India, which may emerge as a ‘‘hotspot for ozone pollution'' in the coming decades, Surabi Menon, scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the United States, told IPS.

Ozone found in the upper air layer called stratosphere is the ‘good' ozone that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun, which damage skin and eyes, from reaching the earth. But ozone found in lower layers, released by vehicle exhausts and aircraft emissions, is ‘bad' ozone that affects the eyes and skin and is the main component of the winter smog that chokes many parts of Asia.

In many Asian cities the average annual levels of coarse polluting particles, of sizes of 10 micrometers diameters (a micrometer is one-millionth of a metre), are more than three times the WHO guidelines.

The particles, which scientists call PM10, are about 70 micrograms per cubic metre of air compared to WHO guidelines of lower than 20 micrograms per cubic metres, says Kryzanoski. Reducing these pollutants could reduce deaths in polluted cities by as much as 15 percent every year, according to WHO estimates.

"The evidence reviewed by WHO confirms the severity of the impacts of the pollution on health and calls for the immediate action to cut the population exposure to air pollutants the most common in Asian cities," says Kryazanoski.

An independent study of polluting particles in 20 key Asian cities, released by the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) at the conference, says air pollution still poses a threat to health and quality of life in many Asian cities. The study was released ahead of the first inter-governmental meeting of Asian countries on urban air quality.

The study rates the situation in major Asian cities -- Beijing, Dhaka, Hanoi, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Kolkata, New Delhi and Shanghai -- as "serious", because the levels are twice the safety limits prescribed by WHO.

Kryzanoski warns that even if the guideline values were achieved, "the possibility of adverse (health) effects remains."

Causing special concern is the massive and uncontrolled rise in Asia's transport sector, notably automobiles and two-wheelers. Vehicle fleets are doubling every five to seven years, according to Bindu Lohani, Asian Development Bank's regional and sustainable development department.

Asia's rapid motorisation is negating efforts to stabilise emissions. For example, concentrations of sulphur dioxide, the gas responsible for acid rain, have stabilised to a relatively low level, but high sulphur content in some countries is expected to increase emissions of the gas.

The rapid pace of Asia's motorisation is expected to raise emissions of nitrogen dioxide and fine particles with diameters of about 2.5 micrometers that scientists call PM 2.5. Fine particles are not exhaled by the lungs and tend to get absorbed by the lung tissue, causing breathing problems.

SEI cautions the transport sector is also expected to raise polluting ozone.

WHO has set three interim targets for a general phasing of activities. These are a first interim target of 70 micrograms per cubic metre, second target of 50, and third target of 30, followed by the final WHO target of 20 micrograms per cubic metre.

SEI's studies of major cities in Asia, which include Bangkok, Beijing, Colombo, Dhaka, Ho Chinh Min, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Mumbai New Delhi, Shanghai and Singapore, show that achieving even the first target of 70 is a challenge to some cities in Asia. Only Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Surabaya in Indonesia, meet this target.

Meeting the second target of 50 is a challenge to "most Asian cities" surveyed, with only Bangkok and Singapore having this capacity, and meeting the third target of 30 is a challenge to "all" cities in Asia.

A major problem confronting Asian officials is setting up air quality monitoring standards and having the financial and technical resources for it. Some countries like Thailand, Malaysia and India set up standards in 1980s but have not updated them since mid-90s. Others like Sri Lanka and Vietnam set up standards around 1995, and still others like Bangladesh and Indonesia in 1997-98.

But there are no air quality standards yet for Afghanistan, Bhutan, Lao or Pakistan.

"With the exception of a few countries most Asian countries do not have immediate and clear plans to expand or upgrade existing air quality monitoring systems" noted Elisea Gozun, head of the Asian Environment Compliance and Enforcement Network (AECEN) based in the Philippines.

In most cities surveyed by SEI, "reliable emission inventories are either lacking, incomplete or contradictory", said Dieter Schwela, SEI's senior scientist based in York University.

Delegates at the conference pointed out that most Asian countries do not incorporate public health in transport policy and so impact on health systems are largely unknown. There are few case studies relating health and transport issues in Asia.

Similarly, integrated transport and land-use planning is weak. Non-motorised policy is "often misguided" and not seen as one of the solutions, delegates pointed out.

The spread of pollutants is acquiring trans-boundary dimensions. For example, delegates from Bangladesh complained that their country gets choked by polluting fumes from adjacent China and India, while smoke from forest fires in Indonesia spreads to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.

As the conference concluded, the participating nations pledged to improve their air quality through stricter emissions control, and setting up more air quality monitoring stations. (FIN/2006)