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Uzbekistan is a country located in central Asia, sharing borders with other countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It is a landlocked country with a long history spanning back thousands of years to its first recorded settlers, beginning with nomadic Scythians and including influences from early Greek rulers as well as Islamic Persians, following the fall of the Sasanian empire in Iran around 651 C.E.
Nowadays it sees much of its international presence and economy focused around large scale production and exportation of cotton, along with precious metals such as gold, and natural gas, due to its large reserves. Along with the farming and exportation of vegetables, Uzbekistan is also seeing a steady growth in both its countries infrastructure as well as population size, with an economy that is predicted to soon be amongst one of the fastest growing in the world, due to large political shifts having taken place over the last few decades.
Whilst this holds many benefits to the country and its citizens, with a considerable improvement of living as well as economic power holding promise to many people and their futures, it also brings with it many pollutive issues, some of which have already taken hold due to poorly thought out practices that occurred in the previous century, focused mainly around the Aral Sea and its subsequent drying out, or desertification. This is a topic that will be covered in further depth in following.
Regarding the levels of pollution picked up in Uzbekistan, in recent times there has only been a majority of air quality data gathered from the capital city of Tashkent, which is subject to some poor levels of air quality. Whilst there would certainly be many regions of Uzbekistan that see considerably cleaner air through much of the year (due to lack of human interference or activity), it stands to reason that with Tashkent being the main standard to go by, the country is extremely polluted with less than optimal air conditions.
In 2019, Uzbekistan came in with a PM2.5 reading of 41.20 μg/m³ as its yearly average, a substantially high reading that placed it into the higher end of the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ bracket, which requires a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 35.5 to 55.4 μg/m³ to be classified as such. As the name indicates, people who belong to vulnerable demographics will be particularly at risk, as well as a whole host of pollution related ailments being viable for much of the population, regardless of whether they fall into a vulnerable demographic or not.
PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, in some cases going down to sizes as small as 0.001 microns and beyond. Due to this extremely small size, it has a host of severe health effect when respired, and as such is used as one of the major components in calculating the overall air quality rating.
This yearly reading of 41.20 μg/m³ placed Uzbekistan in 9th place out of all countries ranked worldwide, coming in just behind other countries such as Nepal and Bahrain. This is a very high ranking, indicative that the country does indeed have a problem with its air pollution levels.
Uzbekistan sees many different sources of pollution happening within its borders, many of which come from anthropogenic activity disrupting the environment (both now and from times past) as well as various combustion sources. To name a few of these sources, the widespread use of vehicles across the country would be a significant contributor the various components that make up the overall AQI, or air quality index level.
There are a large number of personal vehicles in use across Uzbekistan, with cars and motorbikes making up the majority of these, and often having the characteristic feature of vehicles in this part of the world by being exceptionally aged and well past their best years, due to less stringent rules regarding motor standards coupled with the economic situation of many people. These ancient motors can put out far more noxious fumes, smoke, exhaust particles and chemicals than a newer model would, often leaking large amounts of fuel and oil vapors which also contribute to harmful contaminants entering the air and soil.
Others would be the many factories, power plants and other related industrial areas across Uzbekistan, not to mention newer ones cropping up to support a growing economy and population. These alone can put out large amounts of pollution year round, and along with vehicles, are responsible for the elevated ambient pollution levels seen. Besides these facilities going through large amounts of coal, there would also be industrial sites used for the extraction of the aforementioned natural gas and precious metal reserves. These all use a variety of heavy machinery that run on diesel fuels, and the extraction process alone can churn up large amounts of finely ground dust and other fine particulate matter which then enters the atmosphere, bringing both the PM2.5 and PM10 count up, not to mention the large amount of dangerous byproducts released as a result of the extraction.
Besides vehicles, factories and power plants and other additional causes of air pollution such as the burning of organic material such as wood for the purpose of cooking or heating, there is a unique feature in the northwestern region of the country that presents a huge risk for many people living nearby. The Aral Sea, once a sizeable body of water that covers areas in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is drying up at a considerable rate, due to overuse of its water going back as far as the soviet era, and still on till this day, with it holding about a fifth as much water as it did in the 1960’s.
The modern day result of this and the situation with which it has left behind is one of an ever shrinking body of water that contains large amounts of pesticides, salt and fertilizers. As the water level decreases, vast swathes of land surrounding the sea become dry, barren salt lands, filled with dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, making it uninhabitable for both humans and wildlife. When subject to wind storms, these salt fields laden with chemicals and other dangerous materials can get whipped up and thrown into the air, creating significant health risks for anyone caught downwind of such an occurrence. Besides being an environmental disaster, it also presents a significant detriment to the level of air quality in that particular region of Uzbekistan, one that is unique in its nature due to being a phenomenon that is not often witnessed in many countries around the world.
With its high yearly average in the capital city, as well as many environmental hazards occurring, there would be a whole host of possible ill health effects that could afflict many of the citizens living in Uzbekistan. Some of these conditions would be more acute, or short term conditions such as irritation to the skin, allergy breakouts or breathing difficulty when exposed to certain chemicals. Aggravation of the mucous membranes can also occur, with the eyes, nose, mouth and ears all being susceptible to further irritation. Young children are particularly at risk, as excessive exposure to pollutants at a young age can trigger off many allergies or pulmonary issues that can turn into lifelong problems if left untreated.
Regarding more chronic, long term or terminal problems, there would be an increase in rates of cancer, particularly that of the lungs but also concerning the stomach, throat, liver and indeed many organs throughout the body, due to the pervasive nature of PM2.5 and its ability to penetrate deep into the lung tissue and enter the blood stream, gaining access via the tiny alveoli, or air sacs that are responsible for delivering oxygen into the blood. Besides heightened cancer risks, upon entering the blood stream, these tiny particles can cause significant damage to the blood vessels, causing conditions such as ischemic heart disease to occur, whereby the heart tissue becomes damaged due to lack of oxygen supply. Other cardiac issues include arrythmias and higher chances of heart attacks occurring, raising the mortality rates significantly.
Respiratory conditions are also a common feature for people exposed to high pollution levels in Uzbekistan. Many of these would fall under the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) bracket, which includes within it ailments such as pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema and aggravated forms of asthma. Rapid aging and scarring of the lung tissue can also occur, which besides also being a contributing factor to shortened life expectancy and mortality rate, can cause afflicted individuals to become more susceptible to further respiratory issues down the line.
Due to a lack of data covering many of the northwestern regions of Uzbekistan to this date, the capital city will be used once again as the main basis to go by, due to the considerably larger availability of pollution records. Observing the data collected over the course of 2019, Uzbekistan showed significant increases in its pollution level towards the end portion of the year, beginning around the mid months. Uzbekistan is a country that is subject to extremes of temperature, with winters going down to temperatures as low as 30-40 degrees Celsius, whilst summer can yield the exact opposite of highs going up to 40 degrees and beyond, with even more severe heat spells present in the desert regions.
Generally, the pollution levels will get worse during the colder months of a year, due to a massive increase in not only energy demand to provide heat to homes and businesses, but also the widespread use of burning material such as wood or charcoal to provide heat in homes, more prevalent in lower income or rural areas. Severe heat can yield instances of smog, where the various oxides of nitrogen (released from cars and factories) can convert into pollutants such as ozone (O3) when subject to high concentrations of solar radiation, so each season of the year brings with it its own pollutive risk.
Going off the data observed in Tashkent, the air pollution levels started to rise rapidly from the month of June onwards. June presented with a PM2.5 reading of 36 μg/m³, which rose to 48.7 μg/m³ in July, remaining as a plateau of sorts for the next few months, with readings staying above the 40 μg/m³ mark, all of which fell into the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ bracket. The most polluted month of the year was November, with its PM2.5 reading of 75.5 μg/m³, a considerably large number that placed it into the ‘unhealthy’ bracket, requiring a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³, and as the name implies, is of severe detriment to anyone exposed to the air during this time.
The pollution levels then fell sharply after this month, with December coming in at 39.1 μg/m³, nearly half of what occurred in the prior month. The early months of the following year also showed gradual decreases and a slow move to more appreciable air quality readings, albeit still quite high when compared to other cleaner cities around the world.
After the peaks in air pollution in the latter months in the year started to abate, it can be seen that the earlier months of the year were when the lowest readings of PM2.5 started to appear. January through to April all fell within the ‘moderate’ air quality ratings bracket, as opposed to June and beyond which all hit the higher group bracket of 35.5 μg/m³ and above.
January came in with a PM2.5 reading of 30 μg/m³, followed by 34.9 μg/m³ in February, then a noticeable drop to 29.9 μg/m³ in March and a further drop to 19.9 μg/m³ in April, making it the cleanest month of the year. Whilst it still has some way to go before reaching the World Health Organizations (WHO's) target goal of 10 μg/m³ or less for the most optimal quality of air, between the months of January to April is when the air quality is somewhat more respectable than the rest of the year. This pertains to the capital city, and once more readings are registered throughout the whole country then an objective measure can be established, although it is likely that they will all follow very similar patterns in regards to peaks and dips in pollution levels throughout the year.