The air we breathe – the rising health risks from air pollution

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The World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately seven million deaths worldwide from air pollution every year. Poor air quality is the biggest environmental factor affecting our health at present, with Asia the most polluted area in the world. This is a worry for all of us as we strive to provide a safe and healthy lifestyle for ourselves and our families.

Tiny particles of menace

Air pollution refers to tiny droplets containing solids and liquids in the air that arise from car fumes, factories, construction work, and burning fuel and waste. These droplets are called particle pollution and have been progressively rising in the air we breathe. The air we breathe – the rising health risks from air pollution. Approximately 92% of the world’s population is breathing in higher than the recommended limits of particle pollution. Some of these particles are several times smaller than a grain of beach sand but in high concentrations cause the haze in the sky which has become so common a feature of a morning in Yangon. 

The effect of particle pollution inside our body

It’s inside our homes too

It’s not just the air we breathe outdoors that puts us at risk. According to a UN report 95% of households across Myanmar rely upon burning biomass for cooking and heating fuel. This produces a vast amount of pollution inhaled when inside the home. This is thought to cause approximately 18,000 deaths per year in Myanmar affecting the poorest populations with women and children at highest risk due to prolonged exposure. 

The main culprits

The rapid growth of cities in Myanmar comes hand in hand with an increase in construction, cars, electricity demand and industry which all contribute to the poor air quality. The number of cars on the roads in Myanmar has almost doubled in the last five years. Power plants for producing electricity are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, the burning of which releases more pollution into the air. It may not be immediately obvious, but construction is a major contributor due to demolition and the use of large diesel-fuelled machinery and toxic chemicals. Adding to this is the burning of waste and factories releasing fumes into the air. 

A desperate need for change

We all need to take the initiative on a personal, national and global level to help address the worsening state of the air around us. Greater reliance on renewable energy, public transport and improved waste management are essential. We also need to be mindful of our own contribution to the problem and work towards reducing car use and cutting down waste. A greater drive to reduce reliance on solid fuels for cooking in poorer households could help save thousands of lives. 

Tips to navigate the worst days:

Familiarise yourself with the World Air Quality Index: This is a real-time measure of air quality across the world which can be found online and gives guidance on the level of risk to individuals. Check this for your location regularly and follow the appropriate advice. 

Remain indoors at times of high air pollution where possible.

Close doors and windows to prevent pollutants from entering the house.

Avoid heavy physical exercise outside.

Keep floors of your home and office clean with wet mopping.

Minimise car use.

Don’t burn waste.

Use a well fitted mask and change the filter daily if you need to be outdoors for prolonged periods. 

Dr Vasundhara Verma is a general physician from the UK.

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