Air pollution is an invisible killer: Denial will cost lives!

#WorldHealthDay2018 special
Source: WHO Air Pollution monitor
A senior editor in Thailand is being victimized for putting spotlight on an issue that the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to as "invisible killer" of over 6.5 million people globally every year. Air pollution warrants much more urgency to save lives and help people breathe life, and not inhale deadly disease-causing polluted air.

According to the WHO, 92% of the global population lives in places where ambient air pollution is so high that it makes air unsafe to breathe. As much as 36% of lung cancer deaths, 34% of stroke deaths, and 27% of heart disease deaths in a year are attributed to air pollution. More alarmingly, climate change and air pollution are closely interrelated, further escalating the economic costs and health hazards for humankind. Yet it does not seem to be invoking governments to act with the compelling urgency.

Air pollution is biggest environmental crisis we face: WHO

Air pollution causes 1 in 9 deaths and is the biggest environmental health crisis we face, says WHO. Over 80% of the world’s cities have pollution levels exceeding WHO’s guidelines for safe air.

Is feeling concerned about the quality of air we breathe, a crime? In Thailand, Pim Kemasingki, Editor, Citylife Chiang Mai magazine, has been on the forefront of several initiatives over the years for helping make Chiang Mai city in northern Thailand, a better place for everyone. Recently, Citylife Chiang Mai magazine aimed to draw attention to the region's sometimes dangerously unhealthy air pollution, probably caused by crop burning and traffic. Editor of Citylife Chiang Mai was charged by authorities for posting on Facebook a student's painting of ancient kings wearing pollution masks. Even more shockingly, instead of supporting Thai citizens’ initiative to raise awareness about the invisible killer- air pollution - the Governor of Chiang Mai recommended that police should investigate and charge the publication for being disrespectful and endangering tourism. According to a news published in The Bangkok Post, Citylife Chiang Mai Editor Pim Kemasingki could be imprisoned for up to five years if convicted under the Computer Crime Act, which has several broad provisions, including criminal penalties for undermining national security and entering false information into computer systems.

Editor Citylife Chiang Mai Pim Kemasingki told Reuters that “I shared this picture (a student's painting of ancient kings wearing pollution masks) thinking it was pertinent and powerful” and “For decades I have been promoting the city and loving it... so it's quite unsettling that fighting for healthy air for my fellow citizens has turned into me besmirching the city.”

Hope sanity prevails, and justice ensues for not only protecting and promoting citizens’ call for improving air quality, but also for protecting those who bravely stand up to defend human rights – right to breathing clean air!

No air pollution data from most polluted cities

WHO says “Many cities in the world, including some expected to be among the most polluted, do not collect information or report on its ambient air quality.” Similar news comes from India where unmonitored cities had much higher air pollution levels than those cities that came under the radar for monitoring air pollution. Not surprisingly, countries, such as Thailand, that share air pollution data in a spirit for collective action and shared learning to ensure that citizens breathe life (read clean air), get noticed.

Undoubtedly, we need reliable data on air pollution from every country/ city so that appropriate action is taken without delay. Targeting only those cities or countries that are reporting and sharing air pollution data will do more harm than good. Targetting or profiling of those who raise issues such as air pollution is even more worse. The larger issue should be to encourage every country to share reliable data on air pollution and take urgent evidence-based action to address the issue and mitigate human suffering, and avert untimely deaths.

Profiling those spirited crusaders, such as Pim, who raise a long over-due alarm on air pollution, and targeting them will not help address the cause; rather it might be detrimental for efforts to save lives from non-communicable as well as from infectious diseases and fail us in averting untimely deaths.

It is important to mention that Thailand is among the 190+ countries that promised to deliver on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. Some of these SDGs aim to reduce untimely deaths due to heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, asthma, among other diseases, by one-third by 2030 – a lion’s share of these diseases is caused by air pollution.

It is important for the government of Thailand, and every other government in the world, to have coherent policies, programmes and actions on the ground to help progress towards delivering on the promise of SDGs. Uncalled for targeting of citizens who champion human rights causes, like the one to control air pollution, will only take nations further away from achieving these goals and will be a setback for efforts to build a better tomorrow.

Shobha Shukla and Bobby Ramakant, CNS (Citizen News Service)
4 April 2018
Central Chronicle, editorial page

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