Saturday, December 14

‘All I need is the air that I breathe …’


Beijing folk are seen on a street with facemasks. – Reuters file photo

SOME readers of my vintage may remember the above words from the hit song by ‘The Hollies’ pop group in 1974. Actually the song was first written and recorded two years previously in the USA by Albert Hammond. The words following this line simply state, “to love you”.  In today’s world, I would suggest, “to love you Mother Earth”.

The Borneo Post in its Saturday supplement ‘Nature Health’ in May published an article entitled, ‘Does a facemask protect you from all pollution?’ It concerned the quality of facemasks, their relative impregnability to fine particulate matter, and the need to wear a specific mask type for a particular occupation.

Recent data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed that 90 per cent of us worldwide are breathing polluted air harmful to life. We frequently see news reports of cities in India and China shrouded in yellowish grey haze of fine particulate matter consisting of two groups. The smallest particles of matter are 2.5 microns and less in diameter (PM2.5) and the larger particles are at 10 microns or less (PM10).

Deadly outdoor potential

The finest particles can penetrate deep into lungs and thus into our cardiovascular systems, resulting in heart disease, strokes, obstructive pulmonary diseases, and breathing infections, with complications leading to pneumonia. From the WHO data, the poorest air quality is found in the eastern Mediterranean countries, Africa, followed closely by Southeast Asian nations.

A staggering seven million people die each year through exposure to fine particulates, with 90 per cent of all air pollution-related diseases occurring in low and middle income countries. The sources of this pollution are from agricultural chemicals, industrial emissions, transport, and in particular coal and oil powered electricity generating station, with the most noxious of all fuels being petroleum coke derived from the base of barrels in crude oil refineries.

Indoor pollution

This is also a major killer caused by inadequate cooking facilities on open fires and stoves without adequate smoke withdrawal systems and ventilation. Such fuels as animal dung, crop waste, charcoal and wood produce smoke containing carbon monoxide. According to the WHO, 3.8 million deaths in 2016 were attributed to family cooking facilities. Even in my deep in the countryside house in southwest England my log burning stove, which I use to heat the house in winter, is not exempt from the occasional outburst of acrid carbon monoxide smoke. This fortunately infrequently happens under very high atmospheric conditions and with a certain wind direction.

I have an inexpensive carbon monoxide alarm in the room and when it goes off I am forced to open all windows. With outside temperatures at or below freezing point last winter, I may have cursed the blast of cold air but my family lives to tell the tale about grandpa’s log fire.

Worldwide damnations

From the WHO data, it appears that India fares very badly, for 14 of its major cities are classed as the most polluted urban areas in the world. Kampur, for example, with a PM2.5 concentration of particulates (173 micrograms per cubic metre), on the banks of the Ganges river and famous for the chemical emissions from its traditional leather tanning industries, together with Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan, plus Al Jubail in Saudi Arabi are frightening examples.

The most toxic air is breathed by the citizens of Delhi and Egypt’s Cairo, where air is 10 times above the WHO’s guidelines for toxicity. Cairo’s situation is aggravated by its daily movement of two million cars, with added pollution from the burning of grain stubble in the dry season from farmers’ plots on its outskirts. That said, in certain regions of India, 37 million families have been granted free gas connections to their houses for domestic cooking.

USA and UK

Los Angeles, because of its huge urban sprawl and outlying low density suburbs, needed a vast freeway system to take its workforce daily into the city. Inevitably this has resulted in high emissions from vehicles thus polluting the city. It was in the early 1960s that the, then, steel capital of the USA, Pittsburgh, persuaded five steel companies to move out of town. One company remained within the city limits and has been annually charged for polluting the atmosphere despite attempts to lower its factory emission levels.

Employees wear masks at a recycling company in China. – Reuters file photo

Sheffield a city in the UK, and always synonymous with quality stainless steel production, has seen its levels of PM2.5 reduce from 17 to 11 micrograms from 2013 to 2015, mainly due to new technology.

London’s air pollution was first recorded in 1306, when King Edward I briefly banned coal fires in the capital. It really was not until 1661 that John Evelyn, a diarist and member of the newly formed Royal Society, wrote a paper to King Charles II entitled, ‘Fumifugium or the inconveniencie of aer and smoak of London dissipated’(stet).

The Great Smog of London – ‘the pea souper smog’ – finally brought governments to task as thousands of Londoners died from respiratory ailments. This resulted in Parliament passing the first Clean Air Act of 1956 when all coal burning fires were banned from most of the capital. More recently an emissions/congestion charge has been levied for diesel and petrol vehicles entering the central areas of London. Electric powered vehicles are exempt from charges.

The Friends of the Earth, a charity, has recently identified 31 cities in the UK exceeding the level of PM2.5, resulting in 40,000 premature deaths annually aggravated by air pollution. Two years ago, a friend showed me his electric powered car and lauded its performance and ‘clean fuel’ etc. He then asked me why I owned a diesel powered car rather than an electric rechargeable one like himself. My immediate response slightly surprised him. I pointed out that I did not own a garage in which to recharge such a car safely and I bluntly asked him whether he knew how electricity was generated. I hastened to add, that when all the UK’s electricity was generated by nuclear, solar, wind, tidal and hydro power and all thermal coal, gas and oil electricity generating stations no longer existed then I would change my car. Suffice it to say his jaw dropped.

Road ahead

Regrettably only eight of the 47 African counties collect data on atmospheric pollution relating to particulate matter. This is inevitable as most of these counties priorities and immediate concerns are directed specifically to improving safe water supplies, increasing food supplies, improving health and eradicating transmitted diseases – the latter from insects, snails and humans. Seasonal burning of trees, to clear land for agriculture creates massive volumes of acrid smoke in Central and West African states. Drought, Saharan dust storms and locusts also present their own problems.

An exhaust emits fumes as a car is driven through Richmond in London. – Reuters file photo

No part of our world is exempt from atmospheric pollution fallout. It should be the task of developed nations to provide the wherewithal in economic aid and technology to developing and less developed nations to combat this global problem. Collaboration across borders must be a prerequisite to manage air quality throughout the world.  After all is said and done, we all share one home – Mother Earth.