Time to take bolder actions for clean air and people's health

By Kidong Park   October 4, 2019 | 04:57 pm PT
During the last two weeks, the citizens of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had been choked by heavily polluted air in the streets.
Kidong Park

Dr. Kidong Park

Polluted air is harmful to people’s health.

Exposure to high concentration of particulate matters (PM), in particular micro particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5), increases the risk of air pollution-related diseases, including acute lower respiratory infections, stroke, heart attack, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Excessive ozone in the air can have a marked effect on human health. It can cause breathing problems, trigger asthma, reduce lung function and lead to lung diseases.

Exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) aggravates symptoms of bronchitis in asthmatic children.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes.

The WHO air quality guidelines are based on expert evaluation of current scientific evidence and are applied worldwide. Unfortunately, 91 percent of the world population is living in places where the air quality based on WHO guidelines is not met. In 2016, WHO estimated that both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution caused 7 million premature deaths worldwide per year.

In Vietnam, more than 60,000 deaths from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2016 were linked to air pollution. Air pollution is considered a silent killer.

Air pollutant concentration varies by location, hourly, daily and seasonally as it is affected by movement of pollutants, winds, temperature etc. For instance, air quality in Hanoi is worse during winter time than summer time. However, this year, air quality during the second half of September suddenly became very poor compared with the same period of the past several years. 

Air quality-related targets are part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); they call for global action so that by 2030, we substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from air pollution (SDG target 3.9); and reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality (SDG target 11.6).

Vietnamese women wear protective masks while walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, as the air quality continues to be unhealthy, October 2, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Vietnamese women wear protective masks while walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, as the air quality continues to be "unhealthy," October 2, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

In Vietnam, the Prime Minister issued the "National action plan on air quality management by 2020 with the vision to 2025" in 2016, which outlines activities – including determining and keep an eye on pollution sources and monitoring air quality at all levels – which will inform actions towards air quality improvement.

With air quality in major cities in Vietnam getting worse over the years, now is the time to actively implement the plan and take bolder actions. The government, at national and local levels, needs to consider the following actions towards clean air and improved health for the people. 

First, the government should strengthen its air quality monitoring system and share the data with the public. Currently, the number of official air quality monitoring stations is limited. More monitoring stations should be installed and put into operation. Considering the high cost of official monitoring station, more economical monitoring equipment could also be an alternative. Air quality data should be informed to the public on a real-time basis. While the air quality information for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are available on the website, not everyone is aware of this channel and others even have no access. On the other hand, many people nowadays use smart phone applications to monitor air quality. With this, the government may consider having official air quality monitoring data available through a smart phone application.

Second, to protect people's health, the government needs to enforce emergency measures to minimize the emissions during the period of air pollution level far exceeding the WHO guidelines. The Air Quality Index can be a useful guidance to trigger emergency actions of emission control by the government. Such actions may target the industry, power plants, transport, waste management facilities, and agricultural burning. The cities may also increase the frequency of street cleaning using water spray to reduce the dust emission from the Urban Environment Company (URENCO).

Third, the sources of air pollution should be thoroughly identified, and a long-term plan to ensure clean air should be developed and implemented. Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand concerted action by local, national and international policymakers. This means that, even during the low air pollution period, the authorities in the sectors of transport, energy and waste management, urban planning and agriculture should work together for clean air. There are many examples of successful policies that reduce air pollution:

- For industry: clean technologies that reduce industrial smokestack emissions; improved management of urban and agricultural waste, including capture of methane gas emitted from waste sites as an alternative to incineration (for use as biogas);

- For energy: ensuring access to affordable clean household energy solutions for cooking, heating and lighting;

- For transport: shifting to clean modes of power generation; prioritizing rapid urban transit, walking and cycling networks in cities, as well as rail interurban freight and passenger travel; shifting to cleaner heavy duty diesel vehicles and low-emission vehicles and fuels, including fuels with reduced sulfur content;

- For urban planning: improving the energy efficiency of buildings and making cities more green and compact, and thus energy efficient;

- For power generation: increased use of low-emission fuels and renewable combustion-free power sources (like solar, wind or hydropower); co-generation of heat and power; and distributed energy generation (e.g. mini-grids and rooftop solar power generation);

- For municipal and agricultural waste management: strategies for waste reduction, waste separation, recycling and reuse or waste reprocessing, as well as improved methods of biological waste management such as anaerobic waste digestion to produce biogas, are feasible low-cost alternatives to the open incineration of solid waste where incineration is unavoidable, combustion technologies with strict emission controls are critical.

Air pollution is among the most important public health issues in large cities of the developing world. It affects us all, and the government should exercise its leadership role in controlling emissions aggressively, particularly during the time of severe pollution. The government, civil society and international partners should work together to find mid- and long-term solutions to prevent air pollution right from its source. It's time to take bolder actions for clean air and people’s health.

*Dr Kidong Park is the World Health Organization Representative in Vietnam.

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