Southern Asians unaware of deadly health risks from polluted air

People walk amid heavy smog in Gurgaon, India, on March 7, 2019. The more immediate effects of air pollution, like itchy eyes and coughing, tend to be highlighted by people, rather than the risks from chronic exposure, pointing to the fact that peopl
People walk amid heavy smog in Gurgaon, India, on March 7, 2019. The more immediate effects of air pollution, like itchy eyes and coughing, tend to be highlighted by people, rather than the risks from chronic exposure, pointing to the fact that people don't attribute or understand that it has longer-term health impacts.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Most people in South and South-east Asia do not know about the diverse causes and long-term health risks of air pollution, a problem that kills 1.5 million people in those regions each year, researchers warned on Thursday (March 28).

A study by Vital Strategies, a public health advisory group, analysed more than half a million news articles and social media posts on air pollution in 11 countries across southern Asia between 2015 and 2018.

"We see a lot of air pollution content in relation to the environment, climate change or deforestation, but not a lot that links it to health," said Ms Aanchal Mehta, the report's Singapore-based lead author.

Air pollution kills about seven million people prematurely each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), with 1.5 million of those deaths in South and South-east Asia.

Nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air, according to the WHO, a problem that affects more cities in Asia than anywhere else in the world.

The health impact of air pollution is linked to stroke, lung cancer and heart disease - and is now equal to the effects of smoking tobacco, health experts say.

As well as news articles, the Vital Strategies researchers analysed social media posts, blogs and online forums.

The study found that the public debate on air pollution largely focused on vehicle emissions, which resulted in policymakers looking only at one cause of the problem.

But in much of South and South-east Asia, those emissions are not the biggest or only source of air pollution, said Ms Mehta.

Other major causes, which vary from country to country, include coal power plants, construction, festival fireworks, forest clearing, and burning of crops, firewood and waste.

Most of the news and social media posts highlighted the more immediate effects of air pollution, like itchy eyes and coughing, rather than the risks from chronic exposure.

"This points to the fact that people don't attribute or understand that air pollution has longer-term health impacts," Ms Mehta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Emotionally charged content, such as on children's health, gained the most engagement, which could help in the development of strategies to tackle air pollution, researchers noted.

More government awareness campaigns were needed on the chronic risks linked to air pollution, Ms Mehta said.

Mr Oswar Mungkasa, Jakarta's deputy governor for spatial planning and environment, said in a statement on the report: "There is a dire need to look at long-term, practical and effective solutions to the issue of air pollution."