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 by other countries such as Pakistan, Iran and China. It has a long and ancient history of human activity and civilization, and has been witness to many different kingdoms, ethnic groups and tribes. Nowadays, as it finds itself placed in between many rapidly growing countries as well as economic giants such as China (with India also being in close proximity), it too suffers from the same pollution problems that these countries do.

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

In 2019, Afghanistan came in with a PM2.5 reading of 58.80 μg/m³, and a reading of 61.80 μg/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 between 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³ to be classed as such. As the name implies, this level of air quality is highly detrimental to those unfortunate enough to be breathing it year-round, and would come with a wide variety of health effects and ailments as a result, some of which will be discussed later.

Afghanistan's 2019 reading also placed it in 4th place position out of all the most polluted countries worldwide, coming in just behind Mongolia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, 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 severe pollution related problems, which will have highly negative consequences on its citizens. Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, came in with a PM2.5 reading of 58.8 μg/m³ in 2019, also putting it into the unhealthy bracket as well as being 70th most polluted city worldwide.

PM2.5 (or PM10) refers to fine particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, being comprised of a variety of different materials and in some cases a combination thereof. Due to its incredibly small size, it has a host of highly negative effects on human health when respired, and as such it is used as 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 as general day to day habits of its citizens, such as the use of personal vehicles or home activities, which in the colder months can cause pollution levels to skyrocket due to the increased burning of materials such as wood, coal, and even synthetic materials to provide heat.

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

During the colder months, as levels of pollution continue to rise from the burning of these materials, much of the pollution can get trapped on ground level due to the colder air remaining at low altitude, a phenomenon known as thermal inversion. Under more normal circumstances during months that are more temperate, the warmer polluted air can rise higher into the atmosphere where it can be dispersed with greater ease, but as mentioned during colder months this tends not to happen, thus creating a vicious cycle of more pollution being produced 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 burn items such as wood, waste refuse, animal fats and in worst case scenarios plastics and other synthetic materials. Of note is that the capital cities population has tripled over the past decade, and with this huge rise in people often 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 of machinery from the soviet era, who’s engines would be far below the standards of what is considered safe. So to summarize, the burning of wood, fossil fuels and plastics, industry smoke and effluence, automobile related pollution as well as PM2.5 and PM10 runoff from construction sites and poorly maintained roads would be the main causes of pollution in Afghanistan, coupled with natural geographical 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 the large 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 the country. So, with this information in mind that these figures would not apply to 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 the year were actually quite respectable, especially when contrasted to the later months.

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 the month of April into the ‘moderate’ ratings bracket (which requires a reading of anywhere 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 any reading under 10 μg/m³ being classified as such, with Junes reading of 9.6 μg/m³ just making the grade.

Moving onto when pollution is at its highest, after the respite seen in the mid months of April through to June, things start to rapidly take a turn for the worst and a quick decline is seen. June through to July sees a jump from the WHO target reading of 9.6 μg/m³, leap up to 28.4 μg/m³, and it continues to rise slowly up until 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 an unhealthy bracket reading of 60.9 μg/m³ in November, with the highest peak recorded at the end of the year with a catastrophic reading of 196 μg/m³ taken in December.

This makes December the absolute most polluted month of the year, which would see thick layers of dust, soot, smoke and haze blanketing the sky and presenting severe health risks to its residents. This would undoubtably continue on into next year, as the January readings were still highly elevated, with a PM2.5 recording of 145 μg/m³ taken. A massive drop is then shown from January to February with a reading of 58.7 μg/m³.

In closing, the times of the year that see the most pollution in Afghanistan are October through to February of the next year, with December seeing the highest peak of 196 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 rare and elusive ratings bracket only seen in some of the worst polluted cities around 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 populated cities and the capital, the health effects that would plague the citizens would be numerous and deadly, particularly in the colder months of winter, when people are faced with the choice of either freezing, or burning dangerous materials to stay warm.

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

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

Fumes from plastics can cause severe damage to the nervous system, with many irreversible effects as well as drastically reducing the quality of one’s life. Severe fatigue, headaches, irritability and changes in personality may become apparent. Besides these symptoms, damage to organs can occur, such as the hepatic and renal systems (liver and kidney) coming under attack. The reproductive system is also prone to being harmed via the inhalation of plastic and other synthetic material fumes, with decreased rates of fertility being noted amongst those exposed.

With other fine particulate matter in the air such as black carbon, which finds its release from 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 and brick 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 to its carcinogenic nature, it can heighten instances of lung cancer, thus driving up the countries mortality rates. Accumulations of these fine particles in the lungs can lead to a reduction in overall lung function, as they find their way into the tiny air sacs, or alveoli of the lungs. From here they can cross over into 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 or silica dust, it can wreak havoc to the whole of the body due it being spread via the circulatory system. Damage to the blood vessels can occur, which can lead to cases of ischemic heart disease. This occurs when the heart fails to receive enough oxygen and thus continues to degrade a person’s health, leading to a decreased ability to exert one’s self, swelling or edema of the extremities such as the feet and ankles, as well as massively shortened life span once the onset has occurred. Another more common name for this issue is coronary heart disease.

These are but a few of the terrible conditions that occur, with many more able to happen that correlate with levels of pollution in the air. As such, preventative measures during the worse months of the year become paramount, with the wearing of fine particle filtering masks and the avoidance of outdoor activities whenever possible being salient.

What can Afghanistan do to reduce its pollution levels?

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

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

Afghanistan air quality data attribution


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