Dirty air is destroying our health

2016-10-02 06:02
The sun rises through thick smog. (AFP)

The sun rises through thick smog. (AFP)

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More than 80% of people living in urban areas, where air pollution is monitored, are exposed to air quality levels that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) limits. The most polluted towns and cities in South Africa are concentrated in the provinces of Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

In a report on air quality released this week, the WHO said that while all regions of the world were affected, populations in low-income cities were the ones hit most negatively.

The report cited towns such as Middelburg, Witbank and Ermelo in Mpumalanga; Waterberg in Limpopo; Diepkloof in Soweto, Gauteng; and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal as the areas most affected by air pollution in South Africa.

According to the latest urban air quality database, 98% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100 000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. However, in high-income countries, that percentage decreases to 56%.

The WHO data showed that air in Tshwane and Johannesburg was the most polluted in the country. The health body ranked the two cities in positions 63 and 85 respectively, out of 3 000 monitored locations.

They represented the most detailed outdoor (or ambient) air pollution-related health data, by country, so far reported by the WHO.

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

The report cautioned that in the past two years, its database – now covering 103 countries – had nearly doubled, with more cities measuring air pollution levels and recognising the associated health effects.

Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general at the WHO, said: “The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combating it.”

The report also estimated that 3 million deaths a year were linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution, stating: “Indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths [11.6% of all global deaths] were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together.”

Of these, 94% were from noncommunicable diseases – notably, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Air pollution also increases the risks for acute respiratory infections.

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

Major sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants and industrial activity.

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.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  health  |  pollution

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