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What is air pollution doing to the world’s children?

“Sarah Zeeshan said her one-and-half-year-old daughter has found it difficult to eat and drink as the smog has led to blisters forming all around her mouth.”

These words, from the mother of a little girl in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, should be enough to make anyone sit up and think hard about what we are doing to the planet.

Only a few days ago we reported on how toxic air in the Indian city of Delhi is currently at ‘dangerously unsafe’ levels, resulting in the government ordering all primary schools to be closed.

And now a similar scenario has quite literally engulfed Lahore and other urban centres, with the BBC reporting that the Punjab provincial government has ordered the closure of schools, parks and other facilities until at least Sunday.

The global Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which is produced by the University of Chicago, says that air pollution shortens people’s lives by almost seven years in the most polluted regions of Pakistan, including Lahore. Imagine then what the consequences are for children whose lungs and other vital organs are still developing.

‘Difficult to eat and drink’

Particulate matter (PM) refers to solid and liquid particles – that is soot, smoke, dust, and others – that are suspended in the air. When the air is polluted with PM, these particles enter the respiratory system along with the oxygen that the body needs.

The AQLI says that when PM is breathed into the nose or mouth, each particle’s fate depends on its size: the finer the particles, the farther into the body they penetrate. PM10, particles with diameters smaller than 10 micrometers (μm) whose concentration in the air is included in measures of ‘total suspended matter’ (TSP), are small enough to pass through the hairs in the nose. They travel down the respiratory tract and into the lungs, where the metal elements on the surface of the particles oxidize lung cells, damaging their DNA and increasing the risk of cancer.

The particles’ interactions with lung cells can also lead to inflammation, irritation, and blocked airflow, increasing the risk of or aggravating lung diseases that make breathing difficult, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), cystic lung disease, and bronchiectasis.

So why are cities like the ones we have featured in Child in the City this week, Lahore in Pakistan and Delhi in India, suddenly facing such an air quality crisis? Part of the problem comes from agricultural and industrial sources, for example it is the time of year in that region when farmers are burning off crops to prepare for a new planting season. That, coupled with weather factors, can mean smoke drifting large distances and mixing with other pollutants to add to the smog.

‘A noxious cocktail of smog’

Then there the numerous coal-fired power stations across the region, churning out noxious fumes over and above any ‘safe’ levels prescribed by the World Health Organization and other health regulators. Add in the fumes being spewed out every day by hundreds of thousands of petrol and diesel vehicles, and it all makes for a horrific, noxious cocktail of low hanging ‘smog’, which clouds the skyline for miles and quite literally leaves millions of people – not least the children – quite literally gasping for breath.

But while these examples in India and Pakistan represent the top end of the scale, there is no escaping the fact that air pollution is a problem for all cities to tackle, and that’s why a new report by the WHO which says that monitoring air pollution levels is absolutely crucial towards the adoption and implementation of its Global Air Quality guidelines, could be so important.

The report is designed to be seen by as many people as possible, but especially policymakers across the globe, who ‘can use the report to assess their country’s baseline air quality levels, as well as to develop plans for air quality monitoring and data management’.

Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, said: “Air Pollution is a major public and environmental health issue with serious threats to people’s wellbeing and our environment.

“Health impact assessment of air pollution and related interventions is the foundation for tackling air pollution efficiently, seriously and sustainably. This new report is key in supporting countries to get local data and measure air pollution exposure to protect people from the adverse impacts of dirty air.”

The WHO adds that national and local authorities responsible for protecting public health can ‘leverage its content in the fight against the adverse effects of air pollution’. But it also acknowledges that ‘no single monitoring method can address the entirety of a country’s air problem’.

‘Nations may want to employ a mixture of measurements and modelling methods to address their local air quality issues while balancing their national priorities and resource availability’, says WHO.

And it concludes, ‘multiple methods are needed for a comprehensive air quality management knowledge base and capability. Countries are encouraged to use as many of these approaches as needed, based on their circumstances and capabilities’.

Click here for the WHO report, Overview of methods to assess population exposure to ambient air pollution.

Author: Simon Weedy

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