A dangerous data gap

  • Invisible particles cause health risks for Kathmandu’s residents, but poor data means we do not know how bad the situation really is
- Gyanu Adhikari
A dangerous data gap

Jan 5, 2015-

As the United Nations talks of a ‘data revolution’ to make development efforts more evidence-driven, a recent report commissioned by the United Nations Secretary General promised new possibilities that improvements in collecting, accessing and sharing data can bring in “transforming society and protecting the environment”.

For the data revolution to fulfill its lofty goal, data on the matters most pertinent to public welfare needs to firstly be collected. A stark case of how lack of data can directly affect the lives of millions is the lack of outdoor air quality data in Kathmandu valley. It is certain that exposure to polluted air is harming Kathmandu’s residents, but the size of the problem is not known because air quality data is not currently being measured on a continuous basis.

Clogged in Kathmandu

In contrast to the lack of official data, and lack of any open data, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Kathmandu residents are ‘choking’ from pollution. A Guardian news report published last March says researchers have recorded the levels of fine particles in the air, measuring less than 2.5 micrometer in diameters, to be 20 times worse than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) safe upper limit. The PM2.5 is a dangerous particle and poses the greatest health risk. Its source can be, among other things, dust, smoke, or soot. Because it is so small (less than 1/30th the width of human hair) it can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause severe respiratory illness. The elderly, as well as pregnant women, are at high risk. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to high levels of air pollution while pregnant is correlated with a higher risk of autism

in children. Those who work outside in polluted areas, such as traffic police, face the highest risk, as do children who tend to play outdoors. A slightly larger particle, the PM10, also causes serious health hazards and has been found in abnormal levels in busy Kathmandu locations.

The Ministry of Science, Environment, and Technology, in its air quality report in 2005, stated that even back in 2005, winter concentrations of particulate matter were similar to those in highly polluted Indian cities like New Delhi. The ministry’s report understood the damage caused by polluted air: “Tentative calculations with WHO’s Air Quality Health Impact Assessment Tool show that the excess total mortality due to the levels of PM10 in outdoor air Kathmandu was about 900 per 1,000,000 inhabitants in 2003. This means that if the concentrations of PM10 in Kathmandu Valley could be reduced to levels below 50 μg/m3, 1,600 deaths out of the total population of 1.8 million could be avoided…”

Unrecorded daily hazard

The WHO estimates that in 2012 alone, 3.7 million deaths globally could be attributed to outdoor air pollution, but without available data it is not known how those in the Kathmandu Valley have been affected. According to researchers at Yale University, air monitoring stations are “disproportionately located in wealthy countries”—the range of inequalities between rich and poor countries now includes the “data-rich” and “data-poor”.

From 2005-2007, six air quality monitoring stations set up with the help of Danida, the Danish aid agency, recorded air pollution in Kathmandu. Besides the particulate matter, the stations also measured the amount of benzene, sulfur, carbon and nitrogen dioxides, and lead. Data gathered from these stations in 2007 show “unhealthy” levels of pollution in core city areas. In Putalisadak, for example, the air was “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” 287 days of the year, based on PM10 density. The air outside Patan Hospital was “unhealthy” or worse for 152 days that year. None of the air quality monitoring stations work anymore.

“At the moment, we don’t have the capacity to measure air quality,” said Suroj Pokhrel, the Director General of the Department of Environment. “As a result we can’t measure pollution that originates here, or trans-boundary pollution coming in from India.” Monitoring air quality continuously is expensive. Pokhrel estimates it costs Rs 15,000,000 (about $150,000) to build a single air quality monitoring station that can measure nine pollutants on an hourly basis. The government has amassed over one billion rupees in pollution tax, waiting to be spent to protect the environment. It has additional funds derived from carbon trading, and fines to companies that flout environmental laws. Yet, the government has not been able to set up air quality monitoring stations due to bureaucratic delays in approving the Department’s work plan.

Pokhrel admits that the ‘green sticker’ system brought in to check vehicle emissions and meet air quality standards have not been implemented.The Department is expecting money from the Asian Development Bank and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod) to buy the equipment, and it plans to work with the World Bank to test emissions in brick and cement factories. According to Bidya Banmali Pradhan, associate coordinator for the Atmosphere Initiative at Icimod, the first monitoring station could be in operation within six months in Lumbini, near Buddha’s birthplace, if everything moves according to plan.

Icimod’s own study in 2012 concludes that the road networks and vehicles are the biggest source of pollution in Kathmandu, and that pollution levels are highest during the winter. The Icimod study claims that 16 percent of all hospital visits and a “disproportionate number of premature deaths” can be attributed to acute respiratory diseases, which are, no doubt, exacerbated by the polluted air.

The lack of air pollutant data means it is difficult to devise interventions to tackle the problem, and difficult for the government and donors to target their funds effectively. According to Bandana Pradhan, who teaches community medicine and public health at the Institute of Medicine in Kathmandu, although the exact numbers are not quantified, greater exposure to pollution increases the risk of respiratory and heart diseases. “Moving ahead, the first step the government needs to take is to follow the air quality standards it has set,” Pradhan said. “We need to start measuring pollution, and doing action-research at community level to find the real impact of pollution on the common people.”  

Addressing the collection of air pollution data is just one example of where filling the gaps in the data can improve people’s lives by aligning resources with the problems people face. Ideally, the coming data revolution will empower people by giving them the information generated from data to make development more effective.

Adhikari is associated with Open Nepal, an initiative to open data for evidence-based development

Published: 05-01-2015 07:48

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment