Half the world lacks access to air pollution data to tackle public health threat

Countries with highest levels of air pollution have governments who are least transparent on the data, study finds 

Louise Boyle
New York
Thursday 09 July 2020 06:13
A new study has found that half the global population lack air pollution data
A new study has found that half the global population lack air pollution data

Half the world lacks access to information on air pollution, creating a vacuum of government accountability on the greatest environmental threat to public health.

A new study, published on Thursday, revealed that countries in the developing world are less likely to have access to air pollution data compared to wealthier nations. In countries where air pollution levels are the highest, the data was often the least accessible.

Outdoor air pollution leads to 4.2 million deaths each year, with the vast majority (90%) in low- and middle-income countries. Nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air every day around the world, leading the World Health Organisation to call it the greatest environmental risk to health. Burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of air pollution, and a driving force in the climate crisis.

The study, by NGO OpenAQ, looked at data from 11,000 air monitoring stations in 93 countries to compare the number of stations with levels of PM2.5 — the deadly, fine particle pollution that has been linked to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and diabetes. Researchers found that the greater the number of stations, the lower the pollution levels.

In 13 countries, researchers found no evidence of government programmes to provide air quality data. This affected a total of 1 billion people in nations including Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya.

In Lahore, Pakistan, hazardous levels of air pollution have led to a five-year reduction in life expectancy. Without access to real-time government data, the report found, it was up to concerned citizens to use personal sensors to monitor pollution levels.

Abid Omar, founder of air quality crowd-sourcing group Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, said: “Blue skies and clean air are a barometer of good governance. International funds should be linked with targets towards improving air quality, especially in regions such as Lahore.”

At least 30 governments generate real-time data on air quality but are not fully transparent with the information, the report found. This affects a total of 4.4bn people in countries including China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Japan, the Philippines and South Africa.

Scientists in South Africa found that PM 2.5 pollution levels in the country may be four times as high as global models estimate.

Dr Rebecca Garland, Principal Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa, said: “This report makes it clear that there is a critical need for increased monitoring and open reporting of air pollution data across Africa. Currently, there are large uncertainties in the impact of air pollution in Africa due to a lack of freely available data. Global models try to fill in the gaps, but they can’t get very far without ground-based data to compare to.”

In a review of 212 countries, the report concluded that 109 governments are not producing air quality data of any major pollutants. The report called for greater investment after finding that few overseas aid programmes focus on air quality, with only $1 in every $5,000 going to projects.

The new research was supported by NASA who use OpenAQ for global air quality forecasts. Dr Bryan Duncan, a NASA atmospheric scientist, said: “Open data is one small step to cleaner air. To fight air pollution we need to raise public awareness of its detrimental effects on human health. Making air pollution data easily accessible is critical to this.”

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