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Southeast Asia's Unsafe Air Costs Lives, National GDP

Around the globe, more than nine in 10 people are breathing polluted air, according to a recent study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The latest study, whose results were announced last week, found that 92% of the world’s population breathes unsafe air. Poor outdoor air quality is also the fourth-leading cause of premature deaths worldwide, reports The Guardian, claiming anywhere from 3 million to 5.5 million lives a year, depending on the source. Of that number, 90% of deaths linked to air pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries, and nearly two-thirds of air pollution-related deaths take place in the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions.

According to the New York Times, this is the WHO’s most comprehensive report on outdoor air quality to date. Conducted over 18 months, the report involved dozens of scientists as well as data sourced from satellites, ground monitors and air-transport models in over 3,000 locations, both urban and rural.

Shortly after the release of the WHO report last week, Vietnam’s Ministry of Environment released its own study on the topic, reports VnExpress. Though the two reports measured air quality in different ways – the WHO documented fine particulate matter (PM2.5), while the Vietnamese ministry measured nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations – the latter study echoed the findings of its WHO counterpart.

Between 2011 and 2015, air quality in Hanoi, Saigon and Ha Long worsened, with NO2 levels in Saigon's District 1 measuring nearly double the permitted amount. Following the report’s release, Hoang Duong Tung, deputy director of the Vietnam Environment Administration, pointed to increased traffic congestion and ongoing industrial activities as the source of this pollution.

These findings echo the worries of Hanoi residents expressed earlier this year, when the capital registered air quality index (AQI) readings that were on par with Beijing’s air pollution.

Down south, poor air quality is no surprise in downtown Saigon, however residents further afield are also susceptible to hazardous levels of air pollution; last October, residents of leafy District 7 also spent most of the month breathing unsafe air.

Beyond public health, this steady uptick in air pollution is also bad for business, reports Time. A World Bank report released last month estimates that air pollution costs the global economy roughly US$225 billion a year. That’s without health or consumption costs: when you factor “welfare losses” into the equation, that figure reaches as high as US$5 trillion.

When it comes to both economic losses and adverse health effects, developing countries bear the brunt of this poor air quality.

“In East and South Asia, welfare losses related to air pollution were the equivalent of about 7.5% of GDP,” the World Bank writes in a press release.

While air pollution levels in urban Vietnam are not likely to change overnight, government officials are beginning to recognize the severity of the problem. Last June, Vietnamese authorities announced their plan to provide 19 Vietnamese cities with up-to-the-minute AQI readings by 2017. Particularly in Saigon, where real-time air quality readings only recently became accessible to the general public, air quality monitoring is in dire need of an upgrade, as most of the equipment used to document air quality in the southern hub is either broken or outdated.

Related Articles:

Urban Vietnam Reckons With Its Air Quality Dilemma

Saigon's Air Quality Report Just Came Out and It's Not Good

19 Vietnamese Cities to Provide Air Quality Readings by 2017

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