Here's another reason why we urgently need to take a second look at the number of vehicles clogging our roads.
A study from The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York found that "in 2010, about 2.7 million preterm births globally – or 18% of all pre-term births – were associated with outdoor exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5)."
PM2.5 is especially harmful because it can penetrate deep into the lungs when directly inhaled. These particles can be so small and fine that a single hair from your head is 30 times larger than the largest fine particle, says the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The SEI study now shows that when a pregnant woman directly inhales PM2.5, it can put the baby in her womb at risk. "Preterm births associated with this exposure not only contribute to infant mortality but can have life-long health effects in survivors," said Chris Malley, a lead author of the study, and a researcher in SEI's York Centre, at the University of York.
According to past studies, when a baby is born preterm (at less than 37 weeks of gestation), there is an increased risk of long-term physical and neurological disabilities. Preemies are less healthy, have problems with academics and socialization, and were afflicted with a higher risk for heart-related diseases in adulthood than their full-term counterparts.
What are the sources of PM2.5? According to the EPA, most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants are emitted from power plants, industries, and automobiles. Some are emitted directly from construction sites and unpaved roads. The study's researchers also pointed out that diesel vehicles, forest fires, crop burning, and cooking with wood, dung or charcoal, are major contributors to the air pollution problem.
Reporting on the study, the University of York says the largest contribution to global PM2.5-associated preterm births was from South Asia and East Asia, which together contributed about 75 percent of the global total. "In fact, India alone accounted for about 1 million of the total 2.7 million global estimate, and China for about another 500,000. Western sub-Saharan Africa and the North Africa/Middle East region also had particularly high numbers, with exposures in these regions having a large contribution from desert dust." The study used the average ambient PM2.5 level in each country, and analyzed the results by region.
Dr. Johan C.I. Kuylenstierna, the co-author of the study and SEI’s director of policy, emphasizes the importance of cities and countries working together to reduce PM2.5 emissions because it is probable that only half of the air pollution will come from the city itself. “The rest will be transported there by the wind from other regions or even other countries. That means that often regional cooperation is needed to solve the problem,” he tells the University of York.
While we don't want to be alarmists, you should know that fine particulate matter can enter our homes through the opening and gaps of air-conditioners, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore. To protect ourselves at home, NEA provides the following tips:
When the outdoor air quality appears to be worsening, close doors and windows.
Wet-cleaning methods (e.g. mopping or wiping) generally do not produce dust (unlike dry-dusting or vacuuming) and can be performed to remove settled dust.
Fans or air-conditioners may be used for air circulation and cooling. If the air-conditioner draws in unfiltered air from outside (e.g. window units), close the outdoor air intake opening.
Portable air purifiers can be used to further reduce the indoor particle level.Re-open the windows and doors in the home when the outdoor air quality improves.
Some of you are probably wondering whether you should buy a N95 mask, which was recommended for protection two years ago when haze from Indonesian forest fires came to Cebu and certain parts of Visayas and Mindanao. The Ministry of Health (MOH) in Singapore says there is no need if it is only a short-term exposure, like commuting from home to work or to the shopping mall. If you're still worried, try a face mask similar to those used by surgeons. But, MOH notes that the best form of protection would be to avoid or minimize outdoor activity when you know the air quality is unhealthy. (If you want to check the air quality in your area in real-time, click here.)
So how is our country's air quality of late? In an updated report last November, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) told CNN Philippines the air quality of Metro Manila has slightly improved. But 80 percent of the total cause of air pollution still comes from 8 million vehicles and growing.