plumes in the United States and Canada: a common hazard in developing countries | A planet

Smoke from wildfires in Canada — Photo: Getty Images

The dense, smoky air of the Forest fires At Canada caused days of suffering in the city of new York and northeast of UNITED STATES last week. But for much of the rest of the world, breathing dangerously polluted air is an inevitable fact of life – and death.

Virtually everyone in the world breathes air that exceeds the air quality limits set by the World Health Organization, at least sporadically. The danger increases when this poor-quality air outlasts the staggering blow that has engulfed the United States, which typically occurs in developing or newly industrialized countries. This is where most of the 4.2 million deaths attributed to air pollution occurred in 2019, according to the WHO.

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“Air pollution knows no borders and it’s time for everyone to come together to fight it,” said Bhavreen Kandhari, co-founder of India’s Warrior Moms, a network of mothers. fighting for clean air and acting for the climate in a country. where the air quality is consistently one of the worst in the world. “What we see in the United States should shake us all.”

“This is a serious episode of air pollution,” says Jeremy Sarnat, professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “But that’s pretty typical of what millions of people experience in other parts of the world.”

Last year, nine of the 10 cities with the highest annual fine particle averages were in Asia – including six in India, according to air quality firm IQAir, which collects readings from ground-based monitoring stations of the whole world. .

Fine particulate matter, sometimes referred to as PM2.5, refers to airborne particles or droplets 2.5 microns or smaller. It is much smaller than a human hair and the particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, and even affect heart function.

Sajjad Haider, a 31-year-old trader in Lahore, Pakistan, commutes to work on a motorbike every day. He wears a mask and goggles against the smog common in the city of 11 million people, but suffers from eye infections, respiratory problems and chest congestion, which worsen when smog increases in winter.

Following medical recommendations, he uses hot water and steam to clear the airways, but says he cannot apply his doctor’s other recommendation: do not go out on a motorcycle if you want to preserve your health.

“I can’t buy a car and I can’t do my job without a motorcycle,” says Haider.

Last year, Lahore had the world’s highest average concentration of fine particles, around 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. By comparison, the concentration in New York hit 303 at some point last Wednesday.

New York’s air, however, generally remains well within healthy levels. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s exposure standard is no more than 35 micrograms per day and 12 micrograms per day for long-term exposure. New York’s annual average has been at or below 10 for the past two years.

New Delhi, a bustling city of more than 20 million people where Kandhari lives, regularly tops the list of many Indian cities struggling to breathe as fog turns the capital’s skies gray and obscures buildings and the monuments. It’s worse in the fall, when burning crop residues in neighboring states coincide with cooler temperatures that trap harmful smog above the city, sometimes for weeks.

Vehicle emissions and fireworks used during the Hindu festival Diwali contribute to the darkness, and the results include coughing, headaches, flight delays and highway pile-ups. The government sometimes asks residents to work from home or organize rides, some schools move online and wealthy families turn to air purifiers.

Even after an unhealthy haze disrupted the lives of millions of people in the United States on Thursday, New Delhi was still the second most polluted city in the world, according to daily data from most air quality monitoring organizations. the air.

Kandhari, whose daughter had to give up outdoor sports after health issues related to air quality, says air pollution is constant, but policymakers seem to only pay attention to the worst times. more critical. She says that has to change.

“We must not make concessions on access to cleaner air,” he understands.

Many African countries in the Sahara desert region often have problems with poor air quality due to sandstorms. On Thursday, the AccuWeather website gave countries between Egypt and Senegal a purple rating for hazardous air quality. This is the same ranking given this week in New York and Washington, USA.

Senegal has suffered from atmospheric insecurity for years. The problem is particularly acute in the east of the country, where desertification – the encroachment of the Sahara into drylands – is carrying particles into the region, says Dr Aliou Ba, a senior Greenpeace Africa activist based in Dakar, the capital.

The Great Green Wall, a massive tree-planting initiative to reduce desertification, has been underway for years. Ba, however, says pollution has gotten worse as more cars hit the streets, using poor quality fuel.

In the United States, the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 cleaned up many smog-ridden cities by setting limits on most sources of air pollution. Historical regulations have led to restrictions on soot, smog, mercury, and other toxic chemicals.

But many developing or newly industrialized countries have weak or poorly enforced environmental legislation. They also suffer from increased air pollution for other reasons, such as reliance on coal, looser vehicle emissions standards, and the burning of solid fuels for cooking and heating.

In Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, clear blue skies are often hard to come by, and power plants and vehicle emissions account for much of the pollution. The country is also one of the largest coal producers in the world.

In an apartment building north of the city, between two busy ports where coal is shipped and stored and where factories burn the most, residents tried to filter the coal dust with a net. Did not work.

“My family and I often get itchy and coughy,” says 48-year-old resident Cecep Supriyadi. “So when there’s a lot of dust coming into the apartment, yes, we need to be isolated at home. Because when we’re out of the house, the feeling is like a sore throat, sore eyes and itchy skin.”

In 2021, a court ruled that governments had neglected citizens’ right to clean air and ordered them to take action to improve this.

China has improved since the days when Beijing was known for its jaw-dropping smog that shrouded office towers in fog, diverted flights and sent young and old to hospitals to be put on ventilators. When the air was at its worst, schools that could afford it installed inflatable canopies over their playgrounds with revolving doors, and household air filters became as common as rice cookers. .

It was essential for improvement to shut down or move heavy industries out of Beijing and surrounding areas. Older vehicles have been taken off the roads, many of them replaced by electric vehicles. China is still the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, but almost nothing is consumed on the streets. The average MP2.5 playback in Beijing, which was 89.5 in 2013 – well above the WHO standard of 10 – fell to 58 in 2017 and is now around 30. In China, there was only one city, Hotan, among the 10 with the worst air quality in the world.

Mexico City, surrounded by mountains that trap stale air, was one of the most polluted cities in the world until the 1990s, when the government began limiting the number of cars on the streets. Pollution levels have fallen, but the city’s 9 million people – 22 million if you include the outskirts – rarely spend a day when air pollution levels are considered “acceptable”.

Every year, air pollution is responsible for around 9,000 deaths in Mexico City, according to the National Institute of Public Health. It is usually worse during the dry winter and early spring months when farmers burn fields in preparation for planting.

Authorities have not released an annual air quality report since 2020, but that year, which was not considered particularly bad in terms of pollution because the pandemic reduced traffic, Mexico City had unacceptable air quality for 262 days, 72% of the year.

During the summer months, heavy rains clean up the air in the city a little. That’s what prompted Verónica Tobar and her two children to go out Thursday to a playground in the Acueducto district, near one of the busiest avenues in the city.

“I don’t come when you see that the pollution is very strong,” says Tobar. On those days “you feel it in your eyes, they cry, they itch,” she explains.

Your son was diagnosed with asthma last year and temperature changes are exacerbating the problem.

“But we need to get out, we don’t need to be trapped,” Tobar said as his children jumped off a slide.

* Naishadham wrote from Washington. Contributing to this article are Yu Bing, an Associated Press researcher in Beijing, and journalists Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan; Mark Stevenson and Teresa de Miguel in Mexico City; Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi; Sam Mednick, in Dakar, Senegal; Edna Tarigan and Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia; and data journalist Camille Fassett in Seattle, USA.

Grayson Saunders

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