Air pollution concerns go beyond China across the globe

April 08, 2013


China isn't the only country in Asia struggling for cleaner skies. Though Beijing was in the spotlight earlier this year when reports surfaced of dangerous levels of air pollution, countries such as India, Vietnam and Iran are also suffering as an emphasis on economic growth puts measures to deal with vehicle exhaust on the back burner.

At a public hospital in New Delhi, mothers and their young children line up in the outpatient section for asthma patients.

Among them is 7-year-old Harsh Dani, who was diagnosed with asthma about four years ago after he experienced difficulty breathing. He now requires regular hospital visits and medicine.

His mother, Mamta, 27, said, "While I do not know the cause, I believe it may be because of the air pollution."

According to a 2008 study by the Indian government, 43.5 percent of the children in New Delhi were found to have insufficient lung functions. That compared with a 25.7 percent ratio among children in rural areas.

"Because of the increase in the number of children with respiratory diseases, there is little doubt that pollution is one of the factors," a doctor in the hospital's respiratory unit said.

Researchers at Yale University and Columbia University have worked to put together an Environmental Performance Index. According to a 2012 ranking of air quality in 132 countries, India came dead last, behind even China, which was ranked 128th.

Officials of the Delhi Union Territory said the average level last year of PM 2.5--particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less--was 143 micrograms, 2.4 times the national standard.

According to local media reports, vehicle exhaust accounted for 65 percent of the air pollution. In the eight years since 2002, there has been about a doubling of cars on the road in the Indian capital.

"There has been a spread of pollution because of an increase in cars and greater use of generators to deal with the frequent blackouts," said Vivek Chattopadhyaya, a researcher with an environmental nongovernmental organization.

Vietnam has also experienced rapid economic growth through a combination of market economics mixed with socialism.

Vehicle exhaust is especially bad during the morning and evening rush hours, when the streets of Hanoi are filled with motorcycles.

Ahn, 34, takes her oldest son to kindergarten every day on a motorcycle. The two wear matching face masks made of checkered material.

"We have to take steps to protect the health of our families," she said.

Although media reports said air pollution levels in urban areas with major traffic conjestion were about two to three times the standard, the government has not released the latest set of data it has collected.

"The problem is a lack of data," said Hoang Xuan Co, a professor at the Hanoi University of Science.

Although the government has installed measurement equipment in seven locations in the capital, only two are said to be reliable.

"We will need to gather accurate data and implement measures designed to deal with the problem before the situation becomes as serious as it is in China," Hoang said.

Takeshi Kasai, the representative to Vietnam for the World Health Organization, said, "Because there is the possibility that air pollution can cross national borders, it should not be considered a problem for just a single nation."

To the north of Tehran, the Alborz mountain range provides a good view of the yellowish smog that covers the skies of the Iranian capital.

"There has been a 30-percent increase in the number of people visiting hospitals with respiratory diseases," Hassan Aqajani, an adviser to the Health and Medical Education Ministry, said on state-run TV in January.

Last year, 4,460 people died as a result of air pollution.

One factor being pointed to as a cause of that pollution is the inferior quality of domestic fuel.

Although Iran is a petroleum-producing nation, its refineries are outdated, and it has to import about 30 percent of the gasoline it uses.

In 2010, the United States passed legislation penalizing foreign companies that sold gasoline to Iran, an economic sanction put in place because of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

As a result, the Iranian government decided to increase domestic production of gasoline. However, the excessive production of an inferior product was seen as contributing to the worsening pollution and the issue was taken up by the national assembly.

The government has declared bad air days as days off and has also asked residents to refrain from driving their private vehicles. However, such measures have had very little effect.

The Cabinet in March 2012 approved the setting of exhaust standards similar to those found in Europe. However, the international economic sanctions have had a major negative impact on Iran's automobile sector. One source said, "Automakers do not have the leeway to deal with the new standards."

(This article was written by Makoto Igarashi in New Delhi, Manabu Sasaki in Hanoi and Manabu Kitagawa in Tehran.)

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Commuters in Hanoi wear face masks and sunglasses to combat the air pollution. (Lai Thanh Binh)

Commuters in Hanoi wear face masks and sunglasses to combat the air pollution. (Lai Thanh Binh)

  • Commuters in Hanoi wear face masks and sunglasses to combat the air pollution. (Lai Thanh Binh)
  • A doctor examines Harsh Dani for his asthma. (Makoto Igarashi)
  • The 435-meter tall Milad Tower is barely visible due to the air pollution in Tehran. (Manabu Kitagawa)

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