A couple of weeks ago I was flying from the Philippines to Indonesia, and all I saw below me was yellow-brown haze; I could even smell the scent of burning forests from inside the plane.
Not much has changed since. In Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, Indonesian authorities have reported “very dangerous” levels of 2,483 milligrams of minute PM10 particles per cubic meter, with visibility under 30 meters in 350 locations. The air in Beijing or New Delhi is paradise compared to that.
And it’s not just an environmental issue. The air pollution is already causing serious health problems, and over 300,000 Indonesians needed medical attention for respiratory illnesses linked to the haze. In Singapore, thousands of kilometers away from the burning fires, most people are wearing surgical facemasks and are horrified about the long-term health consequences: higher risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and even mental health problems.
The fact that even pollution of this scale is not leading to dramatic action from Indonesia and other concerned governments may explain why the more standard kind of air pollution—which we are all exposed to in most Asian cities— doesn’t really seem to bother political leaders, since we seem to have come to accept it as a necessary evil of urban economic growth.
Besides living in Manila and being exposed to bad air quality every day, I experienced severe air pollution myself recently in Phnom Penh, a rapidly developing city, where I could hardly breathe while riding a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hotel, and thought of the millions of people who spend hours suffering urban air pollution every day on their commute.
We can see the health impact of air pollution in the high number of respiratory tract infections and respiratory diseases among Asia’s urban population. This leads to growing use of uncontrolled antibiotics, often taken without any diagnosis of actual bacterial infection, and thus developing resistance to the drugs.
You may have observed that you have more respiratory tract infections when living in an Asian metropolis. Why? Because our respiratory system gets damaged by pollution, the mucosa becomes dry and inflamed, and can’t fight anymore against viral or bacterial intruders. Long-term and chronic effects are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and of course also all kinds of cancers, as for instance car fumes contain carcinogenic benzenes and formaldehyde.
There is also research that links air pollution with dementia, and that is what worries me when I think about healthy aging in our rapidly aging societies. A report from Germany states that older people who lived near busy roads did worse on memory and thinking tests than similar women who lived in rural areas. Exposure to so-called black carbon from traffic over the previous decade has caused a decline in cognitive functions, according to a study from the People’s Republic of China.
We must wake up and start investing in clean air around us, air that we can breath, that doesn’t make us sick and doesn’t help kill us. In my view, this is an area we should invest more in as part of our push for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and future green cities. This would require supporting enhanced regional cooperation to manage air quality together and more investments in urban health, green cities, and urban resilience through cross-sectoral approaches.
In German, we have this saying: “You are what you eat.” But actually in Asia, we should say: “You are what you breath.”