Air quality in Afghanistan

Air quality index (AQI) and PM2.5 air pollution in Afghanistan

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How bad are pollution levels in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a country located between central and south Asia, landlocked and bordered byother countries such as Pakistan, Iran and China. It has a long and ancienthistory of human activity and civilization, and has been witness to manydifferent kingdoms, ethnic groups and tribes. Nowadays, as it finds itselfplaced in between many rapidly growing countries as well as economic giantssuch as China (with India also being in close proximity), it too suffers fromthe same pollution problems that these countries do.

These pollution levels have caused Afghanistan to receive some very poor placings inyears past, as well as in modern times. Besides being plagued by other issuessuch as ongoing conflict, pollution happens to be so pertinent, particularly inthe capital city of Kabul, that it poses just as strong a risk to people’shealth as the political strife does. It is in the colder winter months thatAfghanistan sees its worst pollution readings, with materials such as PM2.5,PM10 and other noxious pollutants filling the air with thick clouds of smokeand dust.

In 2019, Afghanistan came in with a PM2.5 reading of 58.80 μg/m³, and a reading of 61.80μg/m³ in 2018. The 2019 reading of 58.80 μg/m³ was enough to put it into the‘unhealthy’ ratings group, which requires a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³ to be classed as such. As the name implies, this level ofair quality is highly detrimental to those unfortunate enough to be breathingit year-round, and would come with a wide variety of health effects andailments as a result, some of which will be discussed later.

Afghanistan's 2019 reading also placed it in 4th place position out of all themost polluted countries worldwide, coming in just behind Mongolia, Pakistan andBangladesh, with the severe levels of pollution in Bangladesh giving it the number one spot, with a PM2.5 reading of 83.30 μg/m³.

This 4th place position is indicative that the country is suffering from some severepollution related problems, which will have highly negative consequences on itscitizens. Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, came in with a PM2.5 readingof 58.8 μg/m³ in 2019, also putting it into the unhealthy bracket as well asbeing 70th most polluted city worldwide.

PM2.5 (or PM10) refers to fine particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less indiameter, being comprised of a variety of different materials and in some casesa combination thereof. Due to its incredibly small size, it has a host ofhighly negative effects on human health when respired, and as such it is usedas a major component in calculating the overall pollution levels in any given area.

What are the main causes of pollution in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has many sources of pollution, coming both from industrial areas as well asgeneral day to day habits of its citizens, such as the use of personal vehiclesor home activities, which in the colder months can cause pollution levels toskyrocket due to the increased burning of materials such as wood, coal, andeven synthetic materials to provide heat.

Other causes would be the use of brick kilns, that can be operated on large scale industriallevels all the way down to family-owned businesses, based out of people’shomes. There are other small scale operations that when added together give offlarge amounts of pollution, such as smelting and foundries, the recycling ofused goods such as plastics and electronics, which can flood the air with noxiousfumes during their processing as well as large amounts of microplastics.

During the colder months, as levels of pollution continue to rise from the burning ofthese materials, much of the pollution can get trapped on ground level due tothe colder air remaining at low altitude, a phenomenon known as thermalinversion. Under more normal circumstances during months that are moretemperate, the warmer polluted air can rise higher into the atmosphere where itcan be dispersed with greater ease, but as mentioned during colder months thistends not to happen, thus creating a vicious cycle of more pollution beingproduced and more of it being trapped, leading to disastrous levels of air quality.

For those who are poor and lack proper access to electricity, their only option is to burnitems such as wood, waste refuse, animal fats and in worst case scenariosplastics and other synthetic materials. Of note is that the capital citiespopulation has tripled over the past decade, and with this huge rise in peopleoften comes a large increase in these burning practices, as well as increased use of vehicles.

Many of these cars, motorbikes and trucks are worn out and heavily outdated pieces ofmachinery from the soviet era, who’s engines would be far below the standards ofwhat is considered safe. So to summarize, the burning of wood, fossil fuels andplastics, industry smoke and effluence, automobile related pollution as well asPM2.5 and PM10 runoff from construction sites and poorly maintained roads wouldbe the main causes of pollution in Afghanistan, coupled with naturalgeographical and meteorological factors compounding the situation further.

When is pollution at its worst in Afghanistan?

Whilst there would be many areas of extremely clean air in the country, particularly in thelarge flat plains and mountainous regions that see little to no human activity,the problem of air pollution mainly stems in the more densely populated cities,with Kabul being at the root of this, due to being the economic heart of thecountry. So, with this information in mind that these figures would not applyto the whole of rural Afghanistan but more towards the highly populated areas,where we can observe when the worst levels of pollution took place.

In 2019, the months that came in with the worst readings of PM2.5 were, as mentioned above,during the colder winter months. Pollution levels observed in the middle of theyear were actually quite respectable, especially when contrasted to the latermonths.

April, May and June all came in with the cleanest ratings, with readings of 16.7 μg/m³,11.9 μg/m³ and 9.6 μg/m³ respectively. These readings would have placed themonth of April into the ‘moderate’ ratings bracket (which requires a reading ofanywhere between 12.1 to 35.4 μg/m³), with May placing even better into the‘good’ ratings bracket (10 to 12 μg/m³). The cleanest month of the year, June,came in at the World Health Organizations (WHO) target for clean air, with anyreading under 10 μg/m³ being classified as such, with Junes reading of 9.6 μg/m³just making the grade.

Moving onto when pollution is at its highest, after the respite seen in the mid months ofApril through to June, things start to rapidly take a turn for the worst and aquick decline is seen. June through to July sees a jump from the WHO targetreading of 9.6 μg/m³, leap up to 28.4 μg/m³, and it continues to rise slowly upuntil October, when a more drastic change is witnessed.

October came in with an unhealthy for sensitive groups reading of 45.1 μg/m³, followed by anunhealthy bracket reading of 60.9 μg/m³ in November, with the highest peakrecorded at the end of the year with a catastrophic reading of 196 μg/m³ takenin December.

This makes December the absolute most polluted month of the year, which would see thick layers ofdust, soot, smoke and haze blanketing the sky and presenting severe healthrisks to its residents. This would undoubtably continue on into next year, asthe January readings were still highly elevated, with a PM2.5 recording of 145 μg/m³taken. A massive drop is then shown from January to February with a reading of58.7 μg/m³.

In closing, the times of the year that see the most pollution in Afghanistan are Octoberthrough to February of the next year, with December seeing the highest peak of196 μg/m³, a reading that would put it into the ‘very unhealthy’ bracket,requiring a reading of 150.5 to 250.4 μg/m³ to be classed as such, a very rareand elusive ratings bracket only seen in some of the worst polluted citiesaround the world.

What are some health problems associated with breathing polluted air in Afghanistan?

Assuming that one is addressing the health issues of those living in the densely populatedcities and the capital, the health effects that would plague the citizens wouldbe numerous and deadly, particularly in the colder months of winter, whenpeople are faced with the choice of either freezing, or burning dangerousmaterials to stay warm.

Among these health effects would include respiratory problems such as rapid aging of thelungs, with scarring taking place in the lung tissue due to extended periods ofbreathing fine particulate matter. Larger particulate matter such as PM10 cancause increased risks of chest infections, as well as causing irritation to theskin, eyes, nose and mouth.

They can trigger off aggravated asthma attacks, with young children being particularlyat risk, as with a string of pulmonary disorders and damage to the lungs cancome issues such as stunting of growth and proper development, as well as adecline in cognitive health and function due to the myriad of chemicals thatcan make their way into the bloodstream.

Fumes from plastics can cause severe damage to the nervous system, with many irreversibleeffects as well as drastically reducing the quality of one’s life. Severefatigue, headaches, irritability and changes in personality may becomeapparent. Besides these symptoms, damage to organs can occur, such as thehepatic and renal systems (liver and kidney) coming under attack. Thereproductive system is also prone to being harmed via the inhalation of plasticand other synthetic material fumes, with decreased rates of fertility beingnoted amongst those exposed.

With other fine particulate matter in the air such as black carbon, which finds its releasefrom the burning of wood as well as the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels(such as those found in car fuels, diesel, and coal used in factory processes andbrick kilns), it can make its way into the lungs of those nearby.

With its incredibly small size, it can penetrate deep into the lung tissue, and due toits carcinogenic nature, it can heighten instances of lung cancer, thus drivingup the countries mortality rates. Accumulations of these fine particles in thelungs can lead to a reduction in overall lung function, as they find their wayinto the tiny air sacs, or alveoli of the lungs. From here they can cross overinto the blood stream, which causes a whole host of problems in itself.

Once any toxic form of PM2.5 finds itself in the blood stream, be it black carbon orsilica dust, it can wreak havoc to the whole of the body due it being spreadvia the circulatory system. Damage to the blood vessels can occur, which canlead to cases of ischemic heart disease. This occurs when the heart fails to receiveenough oxygen and thus continues to degrade a person’s health, leading to adecreased ability to exert one’s self, swelling or edema of the extremitiessuch as the feet and ankles, as well as massively shortened life span once theonset has occurred. Another more common name for this issue is coronary heartdisease.

These are but a few of the terrible conditions that occur, with many more able to happen thatcorrelate with levels of pollution in the air. As such, preventative measuresduring the worse months of the year become paramount, with the wearing of fineparticle filtering masks and the avoidance of outdoor activities wheneverpossible being salient.

What can Afghanistan do to reduce its pollution levels?

In the current era, Afghanistan may find itself hard pressed to improve pollutionlevels due to a number of geo-political issues. However, the numbers can bechopped down by interpersonal approaches, such as education and governmentinitiatives. For one, the phasing out and eventual removal of low quality, highpollution producing vehicles that inhabit the road would go a very long way inputting a dent in the ambient pollution levels.

Warning people about the dangers of burning plastics, rubber and other dangerousmaterials may help to prevent their abuse, and the subsequent release of cloudsof highly toxic fumes into the air that create the disastrous PM2.5 levels seenduring the colder months.

Afghanistan air quality data attribution


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