Why are we measuring AQI?
Our AQI is a index measuring the pollution of ambient air with particulate matter, based on US standards. It provides a simple guide to levels of air pollution that the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies on a scale from “good” and “moderate through “unhealthy” to even “hazardous”.
Since opening up in 2011, Myanmar has experienced rapid development. While this development has had a great positive impact on many people as wages are higher, electricity is more constantly supplied and many people can buy things they could not have afforded before, air quality in Yangon has worsened and often exceeds levels recommended by the WHO, as different studies have shown.
Especially the huge influx of cars and industry has caused the air to be a lot more polluted than it used to be a few years ago. As more and more trees have to give way for streets, the city also loses its capacity to filter CO2 out of the air. If these trends continue, Yangon will share the same fate as all those cities in which wearing a mask is the only way to stay healthy – and sometimes, not even that is enough.
How does Yangon rank in comparison with other cities?
There is a general belief that Yangon air quality is relatively good compared with heavily polluted cities like New Delhi, Katmandu or Beijing. This is true but only to an extent, Especially during the rainy season, Yangon’s AQI is usually within the bounds deemed “good” by the American AQI scale. On average, however, they still exceed WHO limits because during rush hour, pollution spikes up dramatically. And during winter, the AQI frequently reaches “unhealthy” levels that should be of concern to everybody – they are as bad (or even worse) as in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Our own monitoring station is set in a residential area located between Pyay Road and Insein Road, and it often shows AQI values that are of health concern. Yangon’s main roads experience an even greater pollution and thus pose a greater health risk, as has been shown by EcoLab. For a broader overview of air pollution in different parts of the world, one can find maps at https://waqi.info/ or at https://openaq.org/. For technical reasons, we cannot yet integrate our data into these maps which is why they do not show any data for Myanmar. However, comparisons show that Myanmar has some of the worst air pollution in the world which has also been shown by other studies. For example, in terms of air quality, Myanmar ranks 171 of 180 in the Environmental Performance Index, rendering it one of the worst countries in the world in this respect.
What exactly is AQI?
An Air Quality Index (AQI) is an aggregate measure of different indices like PM2.5, PM10 (see below) and others. There is no universally recognized AQI, as each country has set its own standards. In our measurement, we refer to the US and the Indian AQI. The US scale considers an AQI between 0 and 50 as good, whereas the Indian scale additionally sees measures of up to 100 as satisfactory.
What is PM10?
PM10 particles have a diameter of less than 10 micrometers. These are considered the most important for measuring air quality as they are small enough to reach the lungs, settle there and cause respiratory problems. PM10 particles consist of dirt and dust from factories and roads, smoke as well as pollen. In India, levels of up to 100 µg/m3 are considered satisfactory whereas the WHO sets the boundary at 20 µg/m3 as a yearly average.
What is PM2.5?
Particles called PM2.5 have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers and are thus more than 100 times thinner than human hair. PM2.5 mainly stems from burned fuel, so cars are a main emitter of PM2.5. Other sources include heating (burning of wood and coal), cigarette smoking and chemical reactions of fumes emitted by power plants. As PM2.5 particles are smaller than PM10 particles, they can stay in the air for longer and penetrate the lungs deeper. This is why PM2.5 particles are generally more dangerous than PM10 particles. For a yearly average, the WHO considers 10 µg/m3 as safe, whereas in India, up to 60 µg/m3 are considered satisfactory.
What are the health impacts?
The effects on human health are manifold and reach from immediate effects like coughing, sneezing and sore eyes to long-term harm in the form of cancer, brain damage and lower lung volume. Especially at risk are children, old people and people suffering from asthma. Indirectly, bad air even renders sports harmful to health as the deep breathing leads to increased particle inhalation which can exacerbate health risks.
In Myanmar, it is estimated that 20,000 lives are lost due to the effects of air pollution each year. The WHO also stated that air pollution is the major cause of death in all non-communicable deaths in Myanmar.
How reliable are our data?
Although we do not use a research-grade measuring system, comparisons have shown that our system reflects a high degree of accuracy. We compared our data with the data from ALARM EcoLab, who measured air quality in Yangon at different points over the last three years. Measuring PM2.5, we found an average deviation of 3.4 points and measuring PM10, we found an average deviation of 6.3 points. Considering that the US scale classifies PM2.5 values of up to 12 and PM10 values of up to 54 as “good,” this shows that our data are highly reliable.
What does the government do? Are there other air quality data available?
On numerous occasions, the Myanmar and the Yangon government have claimed to collect data and to release them at some point in the future. However, as far as we are aware, no such data are being published yet on a regular basis and thus there is no official documentation on this problem.
Since recently, Purple Air provides air quality data from Yangon online.
What can I do to protect myself?
As there is no way around breathing air, ways to avoid pollution are limited. Of course, we can walk in quiet streets instead of on the main roads and we can also wear breathing masks. Within buildings, air purifiers are commercially available, but will only serve those who can afford them. In order to breathe cleaner air, we have to contribute to freeing the air from pollution.
What can I do for cleaner air?
Even individually, one can do something. As a lot of urban air pollution stems from cars, take a walk or ride a bike whenever possible. Public transport is also an option. Although busses might exhale a lot of fumes, imagine how much gas the thirty cars would blow in the air if all of the bus riders were to take their own car. If there are no buses where you live, use car-sharing. Ask friends, colleagues and neighbors to share a ride to and from work – even if that means you have to walk the last five minutes.
Apart from traffic itself, in our everyday life we can do our part to reduce pollution. Waste burning largely contributes to pollution, so avoid waste whenever you plan, especially in the form of plastic bags and wrapping. Smoking cigarettes is also not only a health risks for smokers but also causes a large number of deaths among non-smokers in Myanmar. Also, as power plants (especially those burning coal and diesel) contribute to pollution as well, saving power is also a way to contribute to cleaner air. Switch off lights, air cons and computers whenever you don’t need them. And lastly: raise awareness about air pollution. Get a measurement station and publicize the data if you can.
Then, there is need for political action, and people can put pressure on government to act: by expanding public transport services, by more strictly enforcing rules for polluting industries (for example companies operating coal-fired boilers of which we believe there are at least a hundred in Yangon), by restricting the burning of refuse in open air etc.
How reliable are our data?
Although we do not use a research-grade measuring system, comparisons have shown that our system reflects a high degree of accuracy. We compared our data with unpublished data from ALARM EcoLab, who have measured air quality in Yangon at different points over the last three years. Measuring PM2.5, we found an average deviation of 3.4 points and measuring PM10, we found an average deviation of 6.3 points. Considering that the US scale classifies PM2.5 values of up to 12 and PM10 values of up to 54 as “good” this shows that our data are highly reliable.