The dangerous haze that hung over parts of the Northeast and Midwest Wednesday morning was highly unusual for the United States. For many people around the world, that would be somewhat normal.
Cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been so polluted for so long that air quality readings like those expected on Wednesday in parts of New York State, which are expected to pose a risk to people with respiratory problems, do not would be seen as a particular cause for alarm.
Maybe foreigners can feel it, but for me, it’s just the ordinary air I breathe every day, said Paiboon Kaewklangrong, a taxi driver in Bangkok, on Wednesday. Polluted, hot, dusty. But it is what it is.
In a prepandemic study, the World Health Organization found that 99% of the world’s population lived in places that didn’t meet its guidelines for healthy air quality.
Bad air can be dangerous, especially if you’ve been breathing it your whole life. Short-term effects include coughing, congestion, and inflammation. Long-term exposure can damage the liver and brain and increase the risk of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks.
An added risk with smoke from wildfires is that the particulate matter they produce, known as PM, can mix with emissions from cars, factories and stoves in urban areas, said Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, an air quality expert at the National University of Singapore.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that the PM in the smoke haze is more toxic than usual urban PM, he said.
WHO estimates that the effects of outdoor and household air pollution are associated with approximately 6.7 million annual deaths worldwide, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.
South Asia has nine of the world’s 10 cities with the worst air and persistently dangerous pollution that causes about two million premature deaths a year, the World Bank said in a recent report. That pollution is partly a function of emissions from vehicles and heavy industry, but also from brick kilns, burning fields and other sources. People from poor households, who spend most of their lives outdoors and cannot afford air filters, tend to face the greatest risks.
In East Asia, years of chronic air pollution are one reason why wearing face masks was common well before the coronavirus pandemic. Schoolchildren are used to playing inside on bad weather days. In the Korean language, bad air has a specific term of fine dust and its levels are displayed in real time in places such as train stations, bus stops and elevators.
I know fine dust is a problem and I don’t think twice about it anymore, said Lee Hyung-ko, a college student in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. It’s not going away anytime soon, so we just have to live with it.
Air pollution can also weigh heavily on politics. In South Korea, would-be presidents have made reducing air pollution part of their electoral platforms. In China, the smog over Beijing and other cities has over the years been seen as a failure of leadership. And the smoke that occasionally wafts from forest and peat fires in Indonesia to other parts of Southeast Asia tends to infuriate neighboring governments.
Sometimes political pressure on bad air leads to tangible changes. Beginning in the late 1980s, when Mexico City came under international criticism for its bad air, the city and the neighboring state government took a variety of measures, such as limiting the number of days cars were allowed on the road each week and close an urban refinery. The reforms mostly worked: the city’s air improved markedly.
In other cases, urban air has improved because of something no one saw coming. In Bangkok, as in New Delhi and other cities, for example, the air in the city of 11 million people has improved markedly during the coronavirus pandemic, said Paiboon, the taxi driver, who has been driving a cab for 18 years.
Now it’s back to normal.
If you drive early in the morning on the highway, you can see that it’s all foggy, he said. It looks like fog, but it’s not. They are all dust particles.
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