Air-pollution levels in downtown Yangon exceed international standards, city authorities have revealed. Monitoring equipment has recorded 102 parts per million (ppm) of airborne particles, 2ppm above the World Health Organisation’s guideline of 100ppm.
In an interview with The Myanmar Times, U Aung Myint Maw, assistant chief engineer for pollution control with Yangon City Development Committee, dismissed the 2 percent excess as “not serious”. But environmentalists say the city should take action now to prevent further deterioration and to prepare for additional growth in population, vehicle use and industry.
The Greater Yangon Project, drawn up by the YCDC and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as a planning blueprint, estimates that Yangon’s population will swell to 10 million by 2040.
Last January the YCDC installed three air pollution monitors: one outside City Hall, one by Hledan flyover, and the third outside the Mingalardon township administration office. A fourth is a mobile unit deployed at various locations in the city, including industrial zones. They measure carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen peroxide, sulphur dioxide, methane and three kinds of airborne particles.
For pollution monitoring purposes engineers have divided the city into 40 zones, and the mobile unit has to cover the remaining 37 zones before a citywide picture of pollution is complete. Engineers have already surveyed 20 zones, and expect to conclude their survey by November.
At that point the city will draw up pollution mitigation plans, said U Aung Myint Maw. “Perhaps more trees will be planted, traffic will be reduced and some factories will have to build taller chimneys,” he said.
But some are calling for faster action. Environmentalist U Win Myo Thu, director of the local NGO Ecosystem Development (EcoDev), told The Myanmar Times on July 17, “Yangon’s air contains more dust and particles than it should contain. The authorities don’t have systems to control air pollution. But prevention is better than cure.”
He said Yangon had fewer green zones than Tokyo, and he criticised the government for considering the construction of coal-fired power plants.
“The government said 97pc of the coal plants’ output would be scrubbed, but the remaining 3pc will still emit about 700 to 3500 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. It will threaten the city’s future,” he said.
This latest information will deepen concerns raised after a 2012 study conducted by the Ministry of Health and the WHO, which found many places in Yangon where the air contained more than 100ppm of dust, especially in the cold and dry seasons.
Coarse particulate matter – particles with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 10 micrometres (PM10) – was measured at 80 micrograms per cubic metre, above the WHO’s guideline level of 50 micrograms averaged over a 24-hour period. Typically, larger particles are emitted locally from building sites, factories and vehicle exhausts, and smaller particles drift in from the upper atmosphere.
Dawbon township resident Ko Myo Kyaw, a seafarer, said his niece and nephew, aged 10 and 6, often suffer breathing difficulties.
“I don’t like walking downtown because of the smell of exhaust gas,” he said. “Onboard ships I can work for hours, but if I walk for half an hour downtown I get tired.”
U Kyi Lwin Oo, director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Division of the health ministry’s Department of Public Health, said the amount of particles in the air was increasing and was likely to affect people already suffering from respiratory complaints, including asthma.
He said the authorities should consider reducing vehicle use and encouraging greater use of bicycles, and pedestrians should wear face masks while walking, especially in summer.
“One thing they’re not measuring is benzene, which is a carcinogen emitted by cars fuelled with octane,” he said.
U Kyi Lwin Oo said diseases related to air pollution could be measured by monitoring sickness rates in children, since sickness in adults could be related to their working environment.
A landmark study released by the WHO last year reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died worldwide as a result of air pollution exposure. The finding more than doubled previous estimates and confirmed that air pollution was the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives, the WHO said.