Air pollution in developing countries soaring sky high

ID-10072129Did you know that air pollution, particularly air pollution in developing countries, is one of the greatest human health risks?  The medical journal Lancet reported that air pollution is now rated among the world’s top ten health risks, giving it similar health risk status as high blood pressure.  Environmental degradation caused by air pollution is equally concerning.  But let’s take one step back: what are the reasons for soaring air pollution levels? What solutions do we have on the table?  And what can we expect for the future?

Focusing on the developing world

At least two-thirds of all air pollution related deaths over the last decade occurred in Asian countries, particularly ‘developing-Asia’.  When considering Asia’s development and urbanisation trends which are based on old-school technologies and industries, one understands why Asia is the developing world’s top priority area for combatting air pollution.  Over the past two years, deaths in Asian countries attributed to outdoor air pollution increased by 300%.  A shocking figure! And never before were we looking at such intense cases of outdoor air pollution.

Pollution sources

Depending on the pollution source, pollutants can be categorised as either “sulfurous” (the well-known London smog) or “photochemical”.  Sulfurous smog originates from fossil fuel combustion (from both industrial and domestic processes, i.e. coal fired power plants, bioler fumes) where sulfur dioxide particles react with atmospheric moisture.  Photochemical pollutants originate from a chemical reaction between hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and solar radiation.  Such pollution typically originates from waste burning and fuel combustion.  Secondary pollutants such as ozone and nitrate particles can arise from this photochemical reaction.  It is important to remember that natural sources can also greatly aggravate outdoor pollution – this is specifically noted in the case of New Delhi: the nearby Thar, or Great Indian Desert, with associated dust storms, plays a significant role in worsening the onset of urban outdoor pollution.  

Developing countries are still showing an increased overlapping of sulfurous and photochemical pollution – something that is occurring less in developed countries.  In today’s modern world, sulfurous and photochemical pollutants from one source is common.  Transport is an example of a combined pollution source.  As the demand for personal transport continues in the developing world, pollution from vehicle emissions are soaring.   


The developed world reacted to outdoor pollution by implementing automobile catalytic converters, chemical adjustment of gasoline (low-sulfur), together with air quality legislation and strict management and these pollution emisson control measures delivered.  But what about the developing countries where air pollution is hardly under control? Transition to air quality control through new automobile technology, gasoline and industrial control are more complicated to apply as considerable financial investments are often lacking.  Air pollution does not always receive high priority in all developing countries and priority is shifted lower on financial agendas.

For improving air pollution, solutions need to be integrated, incorporating both advanced and simplistic solutions.  Advanced solutions as mentioned above rely on investments, but simplistic solutions have lower financial impacts.  Air pollution reduction solutions that proved successful included measures to reduce dust (paving of roads and road shoulders), promoting use of public transport, education about the impacts of air pollution, and establishing monitoring with clear goals.

For the future

World development relied on the combustion of fossil fuels, and we are still bearing the impacts of this.  As the developing world continues to strive for economic development, air pollution which is a major health and environmental threat, remains grossly neglected.  In Asian countries, air pollution exceeds the World Health Organisation’s most basic guidelines.  The need for outdoor pollution control, stricter control than ever before, has never been greater.  The recent years brought significant research by the World Health Organisation and the Health Effects Institute.  Now for the tricky part: convincing polluters to change their ways.  The future’s key to lower pollution levels involves shared responsibility, shared between authorities and the public.


Sources: LiveMint; National Geographic Education; Health Effects Institute

Photo credits: some rights reserved by Dan via



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