Governments need to urgently reduce air pollution, a leading health risk in developing countries, and providing quality data in the public domain is a key first step

Children are the most at risk from high air pollution (Photo by Tear Cordez/Pexels)

Children are the most at risk from high air pollution (Photo by Tear Cordez/Pexels)

Although air pollution has been called the greatest environmental risk to health, a large number of countries do not produce publicly available air quality data, resulting in huge global inequality in access to information about air quality, says a new report released on July 9 by OpenAQ, a non-profit based in Washington DC.

Over half of the world’s population has no access to official government data on air quality despite the fact that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The study — Open Air Quality Data: The Global State of Play — examined 212 countries and found 51% of the government (109) are not producing air quality data based on any major pollutants. They are also thought to be some of the worst countries for outdoor air pollution, which leads to 4.2 million deaths every year, with 90% of deaths in low- and middle-income countries.

“Basic access to air quality data is the first step to improve the air we breathe,” said Christa Hasenkopf, an atmospheric scientist who founded OpenAQ. “By providing access to fully open data, governments can enable the power of civil society, from scientists to policy analysts to activists, to tackle the problem together.”

“Open data is one small step to cleaner air,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA. “To fight air pollution we need to raise public awareness of its detrimental effects on human health. Making air pollution data easily accessible is critical to this.”

A number of major national governments such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia do not produce any national, public air pollution data at all, the report said. Other major nations such as China, India, Russia, the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa do not share the data in a fully open and transparent manner.

Blue skies and clean air

“Blue skies and clean air are a barometer of good governance,” said Abid Omar, founder of Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, which provides crowd-sourced air quality information. “International funds should be linked with targets towards improving air quality, especially in regions such as Lahore which faces a five-year loss in life expectancy from hazardous air pollution.”

Without access to real-time government data, citizens in Pakistan have to use personal sensors to monitor pollution levels, the report said.

The information vacuum is preventing people from demanding action from their governments to tackle the biggest environmental risk to health, and changing their own behaviour. The report called for overseas development funds to be linked to open data and air pollution.

“Organisations and governments that support air quality programmes must ensure that their investment promotes data transparency and openness,” the report said. “Doing so will unlock the full potential applications from the data and lead to improved air quality as a result.”

In many highly polluted countries, there are often the least amounts of open air quality data available from governments. OpenAQ analysed 500 million data points from 11,000 air monitoring stations in 93 countries to compare the number of air pollution monitoring stations with levels of PM2.5, and found that the greater the number of stations, the lower the pollution levels. PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, is linked to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and diabetes.

“Clean air is a basic human right, yet air pollution causes one in every eight deaths across the planet,” said Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, which supported the study. “It is clear that governments need to urgently prioritise air pollution action, and providing open data is a key first step.”

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