Air pollution in Beijing has been described as “apocalyptic” this week with people choking their way through murky streets, short of breath and their eyes stinging from toxic air. But Beijing is just one of hundreds of cities, largely in Asia, where poisonous air is now the fastest growing cause of death in urban populations.
In the past few months there have been acute air pollution incidents reported in Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In Tehran, the desperate authorities had to close all public offices, schools, universities and banks twice in the last two months; In Nepal the army has had to give up its cars and in Kabul it has been reported that there are now more deaths as a result of air and water pollution than from conflict.
Statistics are unreliable, with few cities able to monitor accurately either the source or the level of the cocktail of pollutants emitted by traffic, ships, industry, brick kilns and domestic heating. But go to the hospitals and doctors will tell you that up to 80% of people admitted come with respiratory or other chronic diseases linked to air pollution. In Tehran, more than 4,500 people were said to have died last year because of air pollution – but because cancers can take years to develop the true figure may be far higher.
Perhaps because there are no drugs available to counter air pollution, it has never been taken as seriously by governments as other diseases like HIV/Aids or malaria, even though the World Health Organisation estimates more than 2 million people worldwide die every year from bad air and that it is now among the top 10 killers in the world. But governments may have to act as new research shows it to be rapidly worsening.