A child protects himself against air pollution by wearing a mask over his mouth in China. Photo: iStock

Air pollution kills more people around the world every year than alcohol abuse – and many of them live in Asia, experts told a public forum in Bangkok on Wednesday night.

Professor Yun-Chul Hong, a medical doctor who has studied the health impacts of air pollution, said at least seven million people die every year – similar to the number who die from smoking, but those killed by air pollution do nothing more than “just breathing air”.

The academic, from Seoul University, said people living in Asia were at greatest risk of ingesting tiny toxic particles into their lungs or blood vessels that could spread throughout their body.

Tiny particles that cannot be seen without a microscope, known as PM2.5, “can go to the brain, heart and anywhere in the body – lungs, cardiovascular system, etc – and can cause lung and cardiac problems, a stroke, and many well-known chronic diseases such as cancer,” he said.

“The people die in hospital mostly, but their deaths are accelerated by exposure to air pollution… and two-thirds of the deaths occur in Asia.”

Prof Hong said it was the responsibility of governments to ensure that their citizens and cities had clean air and not life-threatening pollution.

He spoke at ‘Battling Bad Air’, a forum at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand held to coincide with ‘Clean Air Week’, a campaign promoted by UN Environment to encourage solutions to this global problem.

Bangkok forum panelists, from left: Supat Wangwongwatana, Mark Lin, Dia Mirza, Vijay Sharma, Tara Buakamsri, Helena Valdes and Prof Yun-Chul Hong. Photo: FCCT.

A silent killer

Helena Molin Valdes, head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and another panelist at the forum, described air pollution as a “silent killer, because we don’t talk about it. But, generally speaking, there is increasing knowledge of multiple impacts not only on health but also on climate and crop growth.”

Air pollution was often caused by open burning of agricultural waste, Valdes said, but there was also indoor pollution in places like Ulanbataar in Mongolia, where people burn coal or wood to keep warm. She listed the main causes as agricultural (clearing forests as in Sumatra and Borneo, or burning rice stubble as they do in northern Thailand and Myanmar); transport (vehicle pollution); fuel (such as diesel), household energy use and industrial processes.

Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for Greenpeace, noted the situation in Bangkok in January and February this year, when the air pollution exceeded recommended safe limits set by the World Health Organization for 52 days. Meanwhile, the haze in the north was so bad that the US Consulate in Chiang Mai has begun posting the results of its air monitoring system on its website every day for the benefit of American citizens living there.

But Dr Supat Wangwongwatana, a former head of the Pollution Control Department in Thailand, said the haze problem in Bangkok was actually not much different from recent years and partly caused by seasonal conditions. He said the PCD lacked the equipment to properly measure the small PM2.5 particles in the air, but he expected that monitoring gear would be installed in the near future, so that data could soon be revealed to the public.

Smog ‘drives top business talent away’

Vijay Sharma, CEO of Paytm in India and a UN Environment Clean Air Patron, told how a doctor had advised him to move out of New Delhi because of the health problems his five-year-old son was enduring caused by chronic pollution in the Indian capital.

But residents in Beijing and other Chinese cities had a similar problem, he noted, in business terms “all the talent was leaving”. Cities with bad air pollution find it hard to keep or attract top professionals, because of the health risk it poses to them or their family members.

Another problem, he and other panelists noted, was the confusion caused by countries rating air quality in different ways, partly for political reasons if they are reluctant to tackle the problem head-on.

Bollywood star and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Dia Mirza speaks at the ‘Battling Clean Air’ forum in Bangkok. Photo: FCCT/ Kirby Carder

Bollywood star

Dia Mirza, a Bollywood actress, producer and a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, said there was a lot of ignorance about air pollution and that was hindering citizens from doing more. Air pollution in India was such a huge problem, many people “just shut down and accept it”, rather than trying to find engaging ways to counter the problem.

She told the story of how Indian mothers got together to form a group called My Right To Breathe more than a decade ago – took their children along when they met with government agencies, schools, doctors, and the media to highlight their concern about air pollution.

“We need to keep the pressure up” on governments, she said, to get better outcomes – to force governments to rein in industry, vehicle emissions and land burning.