Module 8: Unique Urban Air Pollution Issues

Throughout the world, over 1.5 billion urban residents are exposed to air pollution that exceeds the recommended maximum levels, resulting in approximately 400,000 preventable deaths annually.(1) Crowding and population density exacerbate this situation, as the pollution is largely caused by cooking fuels, indoor machinery, vehicles, trash burning, and other industrial toxins. These pollutants compromise lung health, particularly for children, who contract respiratory infections more easily than adults do.(2) In general, the root causes of pollution can be divided into two categories: indoor air pollution and outdoor air pollution. 

Indoor Air Pollution

Globally, about 2 billion people “rely on solid fuels, traditional stoves, and open fires for their cooking, lighting, and heating needs.”(3) However, these pose a threat to the respiratory health of those who use them. Many people who rely on coal or biomass fuels in their homes are impoverished urbanites who also lack adequate ventilation. When consistently exposed to indoor smoke and fumes, residents can experience inflammation of the respiratory tract, consequently reducing resistance to acute respiratory infections, which in turn enhance the inflammation.(4) Moreover, a 2003 report stated that “smoke from indoor cooking fires kills 1.6 million people a year.”(5) Most of these people are women and children, who tend to spend more time in the kitchen than men do. Thus, they suffer from increased exposure to smoke.

In many urban areas such as tenements and slums, it is impossible to increase ventilation while cooking. However, for those who have the option, improved ventilation practices can significantly benefit public health.(6) Interventions include using cleaner fuel substitutes (like solar energy), switching to stoves with adequate ventilation, and spreading awareness to encourage changes in cooking practices.(7)

Outdoor Air Pollution

Outdoor air pollution largely consists of industrial and vehicular chemicals, as well as burning trash. Specifically, toxic chemicals from vehicles are especially threatening in urban areas where road traffic is ubiquitous and cities are overcrowded. Lead-based fuel introduces further pollution that can induce “educational [and] developmental disabilities in children.”(8)

Many strategies to decrease outdoor air pollution involve official regulations on maximum concentrations of pollutants, clean sources of energy, innovations in sustainable transportation, and public education campaigns. Researchers predict that taking this type of action to diminish levels of outdoor air pollutants “could reduce deaths in cities by 15% every year.”(9) In Delhi, India, the Supreme Court decided to require “conversion to compressed natural gas for bus, taxi, and other fleets of vehicles” as a type of regulation intervention.(10) However, the rate of population growth poses continuous challenges. While the Delhi intervention seems to have been effective in some respects, the total volume of traffic in Delhi has increased. Thus, the regulation may not make a large enough impact to counteract the higher number of vehicles producing hazardous emissions.(11)

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Footnotes

(1) Satterthwaite, David. “The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590 (November 2003): 73-91. Accessed on 8 June 2011.

(2) Environmental Health Project. Improving the Health of the Urban Poor Learning from USAID Experience. 2004. 1-13. Accessed on 13 June 2011.

(3) Montgomery, Mark R. “Urban Poverty and Health in Developing Countries.”Population Bulletin 64 (June 2009): 2-15. Accessed on 31 May 2011.

(4) Satterthwaite, David. “The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590 (November 2003): 73-91. Accessed on 8 June 2011.

(5) Environmental Health Project. Improving the Health of the Urban Poor Learning from USAID Experience. 2004. 1-13. Accessed on 13 June 2011.

(6) Montgomery, Mark R. “Urban Poverty and Health in Developing Countries.”Population Bulletin 64 (June 2009): 2-15. Accessed on 31 May 2011.

(7) World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). Hidden Cities: Unmasking and Overcoming Health Inequities in Urban Settings. 2010. Accessed on 13 June 2011.

(8) Environmental Health Project. Improving the Health of the Urban Poor Learning from USAID Experience. 2004. 1-13. Accessed on 13 June 2011.

(9) World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). Hidden Cities: Unmasking and Overcoming Health Inequities in Urban Settings. 2010. Accessed on 13 June 2011.

(10) Montgomery, Mark R. “Urban Poverty and Health in Developing Countries.”Population Bulletin 64 (June 2009): 2-15. Accessed on 31 May 2011.

(11) Ibid.