‘Impossible to Have Healthy People on a Sick Planet’: Fighting Back Against Air Pollution

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 99% of the world’s population lives where the WHO air quality guidelines are not met.

Air pollution poses one of the most significant environmental risks to health in the modern world, and in the latest episode of the “Global Health Matters” podcast, host Garry Aslanyan speaks with two grassroots advocates about their experiences in dealing with the impact of air pollution on their communities.

“We have poor black communities that were never intended and were never allowed to reach any other potential other than unskilled or low-skilled workers,” Rico Euripidou, Campaign Coordinator for GroundWork, an environmental justice NGO working primarily in southern Africa, said. Referencing what he sees in poorer South African communities, Euripidou stated, “These people bear a disproportionate burden from the environmental determinants of health. They have higher levels of air pollution.”

Speaking of her own experiences working in Indian communities, Shweta Narayan, Global Climate & Health Campaigner of Health Care Without Harm, told Aslanyan that “fence-line communities in India are also in a similar position. They are economically, socially, and politically marginalised. The most polluted sites in the country are away from their policy-makers. They are far from where you see. They are just invisibilized. So a lot of our work with fence-line communities is to make visible this invisible.”

South Asia and India have suffered from lack of investments in clean transport and energy generation that would reduce outdoor air pollution sources

It is widely acknowledged that government policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, renewable power generation, more energy-efficient homes, industry, and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution. South Africa and India have long suffered from poorer implementation of legislation. South Africa brought in a Clean Air Act in 2004, but Euripidou stated that actual implementation has been difficult.

“Those plans were never, ever put into effect. So municipalities in South Africa that are struggling with service delivery just didn’t have the wherewithal; they didn’t have the budgets to appoint air quality officers, to maintain the air pollution monitoring equipment in their jurisdictions, or to do sufficient investigations for exceedances of ambient air quality.”

Narayan has had some success in engaging local government in India, referencing a project working with the Health Department in the State of Chhattisgarh, where local health workers “have trained themselves in the science of air pollution, and they have been able to use low-cost devices to identify what the air quality is like so that they can use that information to advise vulnerable populations.”

As for what the future holds, both Naryan and Euripidou are optimistic that the situation is still reversible as long as governments take immediate action. And immediate action is needed: the WHO estimates that between seven and nine million people die annually from health complications caused by air pollution. The tipping point of no return is not too far in the future though, as Narayan states: “It is impossible to have healthy people on a sick planet. The blatant disregard for the environment, which is entrenched in our current economic and social models, has pushed the natural world to its limits.”

Listen to more episodes of Global Health Matters.

Image Credits: TDR.

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