An unseen horror: Air pollution is more dangerous than terrorism

15 March 2017

by Manoj Kumar and Nicholas Dal Sasso

Addressing a press conference in January 2015, Mustafa Zahir, Afghanistan’s chief of the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) declared that, “Environment [sic] pollution is more dangerous than terrorism.” In a nation where terrorism is a very real and present threat, Mr Zahir’s comment is a confronting statement. But this doesn’t make it any less true.

A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report outlined that 90% of the world’s population is exposed to polluted air, with 6.5 million people estimated to have died in 2012 as a result. This number is over 200 times higher than the global number of deaths resulting from terrorist attacks in 2015.[1] Air pollution is a global disaster that can cause a range of diseases including asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. And yet we do not live in constant fear of the air around us.

World leaders declare “War on Terror” but not “War on pollution” 

Terrorism is successful because it causes irrational and disproportionate fear. Fear of pollution is at its current levels because our fear is not proportionate enough. Toxic particulates and biological molecules in the earth’s atmosphere not only cause death, chronic illnesses and allergies, but they also harm animals, food crops and the natural and built environment. We are blind to the polluted air in cities around the world because we’re used to seeing the smog and soot that characterises every urban environment.

Inefficient vehicles, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants and industrial activities are key man-made sources of air pollution. In addition to being unsustainable practices, they also combine with dust, methane emitted by cattle and certain types of vegetation to produce a growing crisis that needs to be addressed.

Residents of mega cities around the world, particularly in India and China, are most at risk from this global threat. In October 2015, the Times of India identified the key hotspots to be Delhi, Cairo, Dhaka, Kolkata, Mumbai, Beijing and Shanghai. With these cities and others like them around the world continuing to expand, it is clear that this problem isn’t going away.

Air Ppollution crisis: You cannot manage what you cannot measure 

As with all environmental issues, the collaborative efforts of government, industry and citizen groups is essential. Unfortunately, collaboration alone isn’t enough. Gathering data, building knowledge and understanding the environmental science behind air pollution is critical. Frequent monitoring of more air quality parameters in more locations empowers communities, industry and governments to “see” the problem at hand with irrefutable air pollution data.

As the old truism states: “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.” To make the intangible tangible we must measure the quality of the air we breathe. Doing so makes countries and industries more accountable and more continuously aware of the crisis we face. This information needs to be shared with the people affected, to help ensure their safety and involve them in developing strategies to identify and execute solutions.

While knowledge is being accumulated, more immediate action needs to be taken. As a society, we need to reduce our energy consumption while our governments work to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Even turning off lights and electrical appliances, cycling or using public transport, using energy efficient devices and sealing any volatile chemicals in the house or garden can, if done collaboratively, make an enormous difference.

28,328 deaths[2] at the hands of terrorists is gruesome and unsettling. Nearly 7 million deaths[3] as a result of global inaction and wilful ignorance is deplorable. And the numbers will only continue to rise if we don’t acknowledge and address it.

About the authors:[4]

Manoj Kumar has worked with scientific, analytical, laboratory and environmental monitoring instruments for close to 20 years. At the time he co-authored this article, Manoj was the Head of International Business Development for Acoem Australasia ( Manoj was appointed a member of the Federal Ministerial Consultative Committee of Australia for the Subcontinent from Sep 2012 to Aug 2013. He was President of Cleantech Business sector at the Australia India Business Council (Victoria) from Aug 2011 to Aug 2013. Manoj holds a Bachelor of Electronic Engineering and an MBA.

Nicholas Dal Sasso started his career as a project engineer in the petroleum industry working in remote conditions in South America, gaining experience in using state of the art remote sensing equipment. After preparing the Australian-based Ecotech for global expansion, in 2012 Nicholas was appointed Managing Director. In 2017 Nicholas led the successful merger of Ecotech with Acoem to become part of the world’s first company to position itself in the measurement, analysis and control of all types of environmental parameters. The (former) CEO of Acoem Environment, Nicholas is the Australian Industry representative on the Standards Australia committee EV-007, which deals with the measurement of ambient air quality and stationary source emissions. He holds an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering from Monash University, an MBA from Latrobe University and is a member of the Institute of Engineers Australia.

[1] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism 2016, “Annex of Statistical Information – Country Reports on Terrorism 2015”, Jun.

[2] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism 2016, “Annex of Statistical Information – Country Reports on Terrorism 2015”, Jun.

[3] World Health Organisation 2016, “WHO Releases Country Estimates on Air Pollution Exposure and Health Impact”, 27 Sep.

[4] The views and opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Acoem.




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