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Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country located in south east Asia, bordering other countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Myanmar consequently has many neighbors, among them ones that are unfortunately ranked very high on the list of the worlds most polluted countries, thus its global positioning can lead to some elevations in pollution levels thanks to trans-border smoke drifts occurring, as is seen in other parts of the region such as the Indonesian farmland fires causing huge problems for other countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Myanmar is the largest country in the mainland region of southeast Asia, and the tenth largest in the whole of Asia based on total land mass. It has a long history of conflict in the region, leading to a slowing of its development, and although it is a country very rich in natural resources, it still ranks fairly low on the human development index charts.
This has a knock on effect with pollution levels, as with all countries making their strides towards industrialization and urbanization, the mass building of infrastructure coupled with large increases in economy and industrial areas often leads to unchecked pollution sources, with factories putting out far more pollutants than would be acceptable on an international level, alongside a growing population that requires more housing and resources to support it.
Looking at the pollution numbers recorded over 2019, Myanmar came in with a PM2.5 reading of 31.00 μg/m³ as its yearly average, putting it into the ‘moderate’ rated pollution bracket, one that requires a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 12.1 to 35.4 μg/m³ to be classified as such.
Although it fell into this bracket, it was on the higher end of it somewhat, only a few units of away from being moved up a bracket into the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ ranking (35.5 to 55.4 μg/m³ required), which as the name implies would cause a number of health issues for vulnerable demographics of the population, with groups such as young children, the elderly, the immunocompromised or those with preexisting health conditions all being at risk, as well as pregnant mothers being prone to some serious adverse effects if exposed to high pollution levels over long periods of time.
This PM2.5 reading of 31 μg/m³ placed Myanmar into 20th place out of all countries ranked worldwide, coming in just behind other countries such as Syria and North Macedonia. The two cities registered in Myanmar (as of early 2020), were Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) and Syriam, both of which came in with similar levels of pollution, with Yangon at 31 μg/m³ and Syriam at 30.3 μg/m³.
These readings put both of the cities into the ‘moderate’ bracket, ranking them 407th place and 427th place out of all cities ranked worldwide, respectively. This is indicative that Myanmar indeed suffers from some diminished levels of air quality, with some months being extremely unhealthy for its citizens, with only a few brief periods of respite. The reasons for this will be discussed in short.
Myanmar has many different sources of pollution, all coming together to form the elevated readings seen year round, with some being more prominent than others and subject to change according to the different months of the year, with variations occurring due to both meteorological and anthropogenic (human caused) conditions.
One of the more prominent ones present in the country would be fumes and smoke emissions from the various types of vehicles populating the many roads across Myanmar. Besides giving out a plethora of dangerous chemical compounds, vehicles can also give out various forms of fine particulate matter, with both PM10 and PM2.5 being counted as such.
PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, sometimes going down to sizes as small as 0.001 microns across. Due to this incredibly small size, it has a potent effect on human health when inhaled, and as such is used as a major component in the calculation of overall levels of air quality, with other materials such as nitrogen and sulfur oxides being used in the equation, as well as ozone and the aforementioned PM10.
With many of the cars and motorbikes on the road, there would often be less stringent standardization amongst the types of fuels used, as well as the vehicle condition. Due to this, many older and worn out engines still find themselves in use, and when combined with running on poor quality or diesel based fuels, can put out far greater amounts of smoke and black soot than a cleaner or newer counterpart would.
There is also the issue of heavy duty vehicles as well, ones that are above a certain weight and size, which include lorries, trucks and buses. Many of these will also run on diesel as well as not being subject to international quality regulations, and thus as they transport people or good across the country, will be putting out large volumes of pollution that contribute to bringing up the yearly ambient readings.
Although it is considered as one of the main sources of pollution, there are numerous other pertinent ones, which include the use of charcoal for cooking, highly prevalent in provincial areas or low income districts where people have less access to electricity, or more traditional methods of cooking and heating are used. This, combined with widespread burning of incense sticks for religious purposes, as well as open burn sites that are used to dispose of organic material as well as garbage and waste (sometimes containing dangerous synthetic materials such as rubber, plastic or toxic metals, all combine to cause Myanmar's poorer ranking, as well as increased instances of health issues amongst its denizens.
Observing the data taken over the course of 2019, there emerges a pattern where pollution levels were distinctly worse than other months, using the numbers on record from the two cities of Yangon and Syriam.
2019 is a better model of comparison to go by due to the worldwide lockdowns occurring in 2020 with the covid-19 pandemic. As such, tourism and many other industries came grinding to a halt, with the positive effect of reducing pollution levels, but at the same time not being truly indicative of a more normalized state of Myanmar's air quality.
Regarding the numbers, it is evident that the pollution levels start to take a turn for the worse around October, with both cities seeing a large jump from the month prior. Yangon saw its reading of 16.2μg/m³ in September jump up to 26.1μg/m³ in October, and Syriam saw its reading of 11.7μg/m³ (one of the few months in both cities to fall below the moderate rating bracket and into the ‘good’ rating category) jump up to 25.2μg/m³, an increment of over double the previous amount.
This trend increased as the months went along, with further jumps in Yangon in November and December, moving up into the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups bracket’ with readings of 36.2 μg/m³ and then 52.4 μg/m³, as well as readings of 35.4 μg/m³ and 49.3 μg/m³ for Syriam in the same months.
The culmination of all the worst levels of pollution continued to rise until January and February of next year, and although there was data missing in January for both cities, with the extremely high reading present in February it is safe to assume that January 2019 would have been just as bad. Both cities came in with a PM2.5 reading that put it in the ‘unhealthy’ group rating, with readings of 60 μg/m³ for Yangon and 57.5 μg/m³ for Syriam, making February the most polluted month of the year, with the following months of March and April also coming in with high readings, before finally starting to recede around May.
Following on directly from the previous question, as mentioned the pollution levels start to recede in May, and it is from here on out, at least until October, that the country is privy to some better qualities of air, with certain months dropping down significantly in their PM2.5 readings and actually falling within not only the ‘good’ ratings bracket, but with one month in Syriam hitting the World Health Organizations (WHO's) target for optimal air quality of 10 μg/m³ or less. August in Syriam just scraped its way into the classification, with a reading of exactly 10 μg/m³, making it the cleanest month out of any city registered in the year of 2019.
Although this is still a great ranking to achieve, of note is that the closer the unit number is to 0, the more optimal it is, with any measurement of PM2.5 in the air able to cause issues for those who may be ultrasensitive to fine particulate matter or other forms of pollution.
Expanding slightly on the cleaner months, with information that may be useful for those who are not only living in Myanmar but planning to travel and keep themselves safe from elevated pollution levels, June through to September is when the air is at its cleanest, with three accounts of ‘good’ ratings coming up and one with the WHO's target goals being met. After September is over the air quality starts to rapidly decline again, and as such preventative measures may be useful for staying safe from any dangerous particulate matters, fumes, smog and haze in the air that could trigger off respiratory related illnesses in vulnerable individuals.
This can be achieved by staying up to date on air quality levels via the air quality maps as available on the IQAir website, as well as utilizing the AirVisual app to check localized readings of PM2.5 and other pollutants in the air. On more heavily polluted days, measures such as staying indoors and avoiding outdoor activities, as well as the wearing of fine particle filtering masks may become of more importance for those looking to protect their long term health.
With readings year round that stay quite high, going up to the unhealthy ratings bracket in certain instances as mentioned, there would be a large amount of health issues related to breathing the smoke and fumes permeating the atmosphere. As touched on briefly, any reading of pollution has the ability to cause detrimental side effects, but as the reading goes up in number, the chance of these negative health issues also goes up, as well as there being a larger array of health issues to deal with.
Some of these would include rapid aging and scarring of the lungs, with fine particulate matter such as black carbon (released from the combustion of both fossil fuels and organic matter) being able to aggravate the mucous membranes and cause irritation to the eyes, mouth, nose and throat.
With the damage to the lungs occurring (also caused by numerous other chemical compounds such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), not only would this reduce full lung function and cause higher rates of mortality amongst the population, it would also make people more susceptible to catching further respiratory ailments, which would include ones such as pneumonia, bronchitis, aggravated asthma as well as emphysema.
The worst aspect about fine particulate matter such as the aforementioned black carbon, as well as finely ground dust, gravel and silica particles, is that when they are of a small enough size they can enter into the bloodstream through the lungs, crossing over the blood barrier via the alveoli. Whilst this in its own right causes lung damage, heightened instances of cancer as well as reduced lung capacity, once these dangerous materials are in the blood, they can wreak havoc in many areas of the body, travelling around via the circulatory system. Once in the bloodstream, ailments such as ischemic heart disease can occur (where the tissues of the heart fail to receive enough oxygen) as well as increased rates of heart attacks and arrythmias happening.
Damage to the blood vessels will be another side effect, as well as damage to the hepatic and renal systems (liver and kidneys). Reproductive health can also be affected, and one of the more at risk groups, pregnant mothers, can be subject to issues such as miscarriage, with babies being born prematurely and with low birth weight, as well as cognitive and physical defects being potentially present, if the baby is exposed to high levels of pollution via the mother whilst in the womb. These are but a small number of the deadly side effects that pollution can cause over both prolonged and short term exposure.