KUALA LUMPUR, – Air pollution caused tens of thousands of deaths in the world’s five most populous cities last year despite coronavirus lockdowns, researchers said on Thursday, urging governments to ditch fossil fuels and invest in a green recovery.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace Southeast Asia and air quality technology company IQAir measured pollution levels across 28 cities – chosen according to where data was available and with a geographical spread.
In the five most-populated cities – Delhi, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo – air pollution caused about 160,000 deaths and economic losses totalling about $85 billion.
“A few months of lockdown hasn’t really dented that long-term average of air pollution that people have been exposed to,” said Aidan Farrow, an air pollution scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at Britain’s University of Exeter.
“It is a little shocking to see how much upheaval there has been – and we still have work to do to improve air pollution,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Air pollution is the single largest environmental risk to human health globally, and kills an estimated 7 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO says nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air, which is linked to strokes, lung cancer and heart disease – and now equals the effects of smoking tobacco, health experts say.
The problem affects more cities in Asia than anywhere else in the world. Major causes include vehicle emissions, coal power plants, construction, festival fireworks, forest clearing, and burning of crops, firewood and waste.
Delhi had the highest death toll among the five biggest cities, with some 54,000 deaths – or one per 500 people – due to high levels of tiny pollution particles, known as PM2.5, which can cause lung and heart diseases, the study said.
Japan’s capital Tokyo suffered the highest financial cost with approximately 40,000 deaths and economic losses of $43 billion, it added.
Lockdowns to stem the spread of the new coronavirus in major cities have forced millions to work from home, while slowing economies have slashed carbon dioxide emissions.
“We have seen changes in road traffic, aviation as well … but the major (air pollution) sources have continued to operate largely as before,” Farrow said,
“The problem is vast and needs a big, multi-industry effort to address it,” he added, calling for more investment in cleaner technologies, renewable energy and electrified public transport.
Simon Ayafa has witnessed oil pollution in the Niger Delta region since he was 15. Now, at 35, he feels the region has been made uninhabitable by decades of oil spills.
“You to go the stream to fetch water and you get oil,” said Ayafa, who is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Bodo, a fishing village that has suffered from massive oil spills. “You go to the farm and the crops are damaged and cannot produce because of pollution. That is our fate here.”
A series of pipeline spills between 2008 and 2009 left the entire area flowing in oil. With support from Amnesty International, the community took legal action against Royal Dutch Shell. The case was settled out of court in 2015 for the equivalent of about $36.6 million, with part going to the community and the rest divided among the community’s residents.
Now a handful of farmers from two other communities, who stood up to the oil giant over spills that occurred between 2004 and 2007, has won another landmark case.
On Jan. 20, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) was liable for oil pollution in several farming and fishing communities in the Niger Delta region where many families are Catholic.
“This is a victory for the people and for a region which has been so badly affected by pollution,” said Fr. Paul Nsoka, a priest of the Portharcourt Diocese, which has over 1 million Catholics.
“The water, farmlands and other sources of livelihood of the people have been largely affected because of some cheap gains, and the government over the years has been paying lip-service to issues of pollution by multinational oil companies affecting its citizens,” he added.
Nsoka said that despite the cost and damage in the region, the ruling constituted “environmental justice.”
Besides holding the Nigerian subsidiary responsible, the Court of Appeals in The Hague ruled that Shell, which is based in Holland, had breached its “duty of care” in its operations abroad. It ordered the subsidiary to pay compensation to the farmers and begin cleanup of the polluted areas.
Now another lawsuit looms. On Feb. 12, the British Supreme Court ruled that a group of Nigerian farmers and fishermen can sue Shell in English courts, overturning lower court rulings that had blocked such suits.
The two villages covered by the Dutch court ruling, Oruma and Goi, in the Nigerian state of Rivers, have suffered for years from the environmental impact of the pollution. Shell claimed that the spills were caused by sabotage, but the court rejected that argument, saying the company had not provided enough evidence to support its claim.
A ruling in a third case involving an oil well in the village of Ikot Ada Udo is pending. In that case, the spill was caused by sabotage, but the court has not determined whether Shell can be held liable and has requested clarification about the extent of the pollution caused by the spill.
Details of the compensation in the cases of Oruma and Goi were not disclosed.
For the past 13 years, four Nigerian farmers who have become environmental activists from the region have been representing the affected communities and leading efforts to get justice for those affected by the pollution. With support from the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth Netherlands, the four launched their lawsuit against Shell in 2008.
The four have sought compensation for damage and loss of livelihoods that they say they suffered from spills of crude oil from a well and pipelines. They demanded that Shell clean up the contamination more thoroughly and take measures to prevent a recurrence. The court also ordered Shell to build a better warning system in the affected villages to alert residents to possible leaks.
“Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell’s oil,” Eric Dooh of Goi, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement from Friends of the Earth Netherlands. “It is a bittersweet victory, since two of the plaintiffs, including my father, did not live to see the end of this trial. But this verdict brings hope for the future of the people in the Niger Delta.”
In the same statement, Rachel Kennerley, climate campaign manager at Friends of the Earth Netherlands, called the court ruling “a fantastic victory.”
“For too long, companies like Shell have been shirking their responsibility for the impact of the dirty industry they push on communities around the world,” she said. “Thirteen years of fighting for justice has finally turned this around, and today’s judgment is a wakeup call for polluting companies and governments everywhere.”
She also called for the British government to end its investment in fossil fuel projects overseas “unless it wants to face legal challenges.”
Pollution from oil operations in the Niger Delta has been affecting local farmers since commercial production for export began in 1956. Contamination left multinational by oil companies and their subsidiaries — including U.S.-based Chevron Corp, Italy’s Agip and the Nigerian subsidiary of France’s Elf Aquitaine, now TotalFinaElf, as well as Shell — has fouled the waterways and destroyed farmlands of local communities that largely depend on fishing and small-scale farming and trading.
The decades of pollution have led to growing protests and the rise of militant groups opposing oil companies in the region. This has resulted in a series of abductions of foreign oil workers for ransom and bloody clashes with security forces. Indigenous communities, landless farmers, women, trade unions and fishers whose livelihood has been affected have often joined the protests.
The court ruling could mark a turning point. Catholics in the affected communities who spoke with EarthBeat welcomed the decision, but they said much must be done to clean up the pollution in the region.
Nnamdi Amaechi, who lives in Oruma, said residents often track oily residue into their homes after walking outdoors.
“This has been a natural injustice the people are facing, but with this [court ruling], the people will find some form of compensation to fall back on,” he said. “Our community has been rejoicing because of the outcomes.”
A U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) report commissioned by the Nigerian government found that pollution was deeper and more extensive than previously thought after an agency team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline rights-of-way, analyzed 4,000 soil and water samples, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and held community meetings attended by more than 23,000 people.
The report, which took 14 months to complete and was released in August 2011, proposed a project that would involve cleaning up the contaminated water, wells, soil and mangrove swamps, and establishing a soil management center with hundreds of mini-centers that would treat contaminated soil, creating hundreds of jobs.
The report projected that a thorough cleanup would take 25 to 30 years and proposed that Shell and the Nigerian government share the cost, which was estimated at some $1 billion for the first five years.
In 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the government planned to begin the cleanup recommended by the UNEP report. Work was started that year in the village of Bodo, but progress has been slow. The agency overseeing the cleanup, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, says it has received only $180 million of the $1 billion supposedly earmarked for the cleanup.
Residents of the affected communities say they doubt that the government will ensure that the cleanup is completed. Questions have been raised about the qualifications of the coordinating agency’s subcontractors, and civil society groups have accused the agency of corruption and contract scams.
“Everyone thinks the government is not serious with this [clean-up] and only doing this for political gains,” Nsoka said. “It’s been about five years now since they started, and we are yet to see the impact.”
Meanwhile, oil pollution continues in the Niger Delta region, leaving much of the region uninhabitable. This has led to small-scale migration, as residents of affected communities have left their homes and livelihoods and moved to other areas with less impact.
“It will take a very long time before the region becomes the way it has been before oil exploration and, of course, pollution started taking place here,” Takai Dome, an environmental activist who has been following the court cases and developments in the region, told EarthBeat. “The impact will still be there and on the way people in affected communities lead their lives.”
The River Thames has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics for any river in the world.
Scientists have estimated that 94,000 microplastics per second flow down the river in places.
The quantity exceeds that measured in other European rivers, such as the Danube and Rhine.
Tiny bits of plastic have been found inside the bodies of crabs living in the Thames.
And wet wipes flushed down the toilet are accumulating in large numbers on the shoreline.
Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, are calling for stricter regulations on the labelling and disposal of plastic products.
They warn that careless disposal of plastic gloves and masks during the coronavirus pandemic might make the problem of plastic pollution worse.
“Taken together these studies show how many different types of plastic, from microplastics in the water through to larger items of debris physically altering the foreshore, can potentially affect a wide range of organisms in the River Thames,” said Prof Dave Morritt from Royal Holloway.
“The increased use of single-use plastic items, and the inappropriate disposal of such items, including masks and gloves, along with plastic-containing cleaning products, during the current Covid-19 pandemic, may well exacerbate this problem.”
The scientists point out that the Thames is cleaner than it used to be with respect to some pollutants, such as trace metals.
What plastics were found in the River?
Many forms of microplastics were found in the Thames, including glitter, microbeads from cosmetics and plastic fragments from larger items.
The bulk of the microplastics came from the break-down of large plastics, with food packaging thought to be a significant source.
“Flushable” wet wipes were found in high abundance on the shoreline forming “wet wipe reefs”.
Study researcher, Katherine McCoy, said, “Our study shows that stricter regulations are needed for the labelling and disposal of these products. There is great scope to further research the impacts of microplastics and indeed microfibres on Thames organisms.”
Where does the plastic come from?
Fibres from washing machine outflows and potentially from sewage outfalls, plus fragments from the breakup of larger plastics, such as packaging items and bottles, which are washed into the river.
Katharine Rowley of Royal Holloway said it’s unclear why there’s such a high density of plastic in the River Thames, but called for people to think about the plastic they use and throw away.
“People can make much more of a difference than they might think,” she said.
What is the plastic doing to wildlife in the river?
Some animals living in the river are ingesting microplastics, including two species of crab.
Crabs contained tangled plastic in their stomachs, including fibres and microplastics from sanitary pads, balloons, elastic bands and carrier bags.
“Tangles of plastic were particularly prevalent in the invasive Chinese mitten crab and we still don’t fully understand the reason for this.”
Clams near the wet wipe “reefs” contained synthetic polymers, some of which may have originated from the wet wipes and other pollutants found on the site such as sanitary items.
How do the findings compare with other rivers?
Much of the work on microplastics has been carried out in seas and oceans rather than rivers.
By comparison, the Thames has higher quantities of microplastics than levels recorded in the Rhine in Germany, the Danube in Romania, the River Po in Italy and the Chicago River in the US.
However, levels appear lower than those reported for China’s Yangzte river.
Other scientists previously tested river sediments at 40 sites throughout Greater Manchester and found “microplastics everywhere”.
The latest research was carried out in collaboration with the Natural History Museum and Zoological Society, London.
Dr Paul Clark of the Natural History Museum said, “What our students have shown in this collaboration is that although the Thames is certainly cleaner with regards some chemical pollutants, eg. heavy metals, the River is severely polluted with plastic. And once again our wildlife is threatened.”
The research is reported in two papers in Environmental Pollution and in one paper in Science of the Total Environment.
Worshippers braved the smog to enter the polluted River Yamuna as part of the Hindu religious festival of Chatth Puja
Air pollution in the north of India has “reached unbearable levels,” the capital Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvid Kejriwal says.
In many areas of Delhi air quality deteriorated into the “hazardous” category on Sunday with the potential to cause respiratory illnesses.
Authorities have urged people to stay inside to protect themselves.
Mr Kejriwal called on the central government to provide relief and tackle the toxic pollution.
How a food crisis led to Delhi’s foul smog
Schools have been closed, more than 30 flights diverted and construction work halted as the city sits in a thick blanket of smog.
Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain advised the city’s residents to “avoid outdoor physical activities, especially during morning and late evening hours”.
The advisory also said people should wear anti-pollution masks, avoid polluted areas and keep doors and windows closed.
How bad is the smog?
Levels of dangerous particles in the air – known as PM2.5 – are far higher than recommended and about seven times higher than in the Chinese capital Beijing.
An Indian health ministry official said the city’s pollution monitors did not have enough digits to accurately record pollution levels, which he called a “disaster”.
Five million masks were handed out in schools on Friday as officials declared a public health emergency and Mr Kejriwal likened the city to a “gas chamber”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.
“This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco,” the WHO says on its website.
How are people reacting?
Mr Kejriwal’s most recent comments are unlikely to please government officials, reports the BBC’s South Asia regional editor Jill McGivering. She said Indian politicians were blaming each other for the conditions.
On Sunday young people in Delhi came out to protest and demand action.
“You can obviously see how terrible it is and it’s actually scary you can’t see things in front of you,” said Jaivipra.
She said she wanted long-term and sustainable anti-pollution measures put in place.
“We are concerned about our futures and about our health but we are also fighting this on behalf of the children and the elderly who bear the biggest brunt of the problem here,” she said.
Some ministers have sparked controversy on social media by suggesting light-hearted measures to stay healthy.
Harsh Vardhan, the union minister for health and family welfare, urged people to eat carrots to protect against “night blindness” and “other pollution-related harm to health”.
Meanwhile, Prakash Javadekar, the minister of the environment, suggested that you should “start your day with music”, adding a link to a “scintillating thematic composition”.
“Is that the reason you have turned deaf ears to our plight on pollution?” one Twitter user responded. “Seems you are too busy hearing music that you are not able to hear us!”
What’s caused the pollution?
A major factor behind the high pollution levels at this time of year is farmers in neighbouring states burning crop stubble to clear their fields.
This creates a lethal cocktail of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide – all worsened by fireworks set off during the Hindu festival Diwali a week ago.
Vehicle fumes, construction and industrial emissions have also contributed to the smog.
Indians are hoping that scattered rainfall over the coming week will wash away the pollutants but this is not due until Thursday.
GETTY IMAGESImage captionBananas are a big export industry for Martinique and nearly all are shipped to France.
The French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique thrive on their image as idyllic sun, sea and sand destinations for tourists.
But few visitors are aware that these lush, tropical islands have a chronic pollution problem.
A pesticide linked to cancer – chlordecone – was sprayed on banana crops on the islands for two decades and now nearly all the adult local residents have traces of it in their blood.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called it an “environmental scandal” and said the state “must take responsibility”. He visited Martinique last year and was briefed on the crisis on the islands, known in France as the Antilles.
The French parliament is holding a public inquiry which will report its findings in December.
“We found anger and anxiety in the Antilles – the population feel abandoned by the republic,” said Guadeloupe MP Justine Benin, who is in charge of the inquiry’s report.
“They are resilient people, they’ve been hit by hurricanes before, but their trust needs to be restored,” she told the BBC.
Large tracts of soil are contaminated, as are rivers and coastal waters. The authorities are trying to keep the chemical out of the food chain, but it is difficult, as much produce comes from smallholders, often sold at the roadside.
Drinking water is considered safe, as carbon filters are used to remove contaminants.
In the US a factory producing chlordecone – sold commercially as kepone – was shut down in 1975 after workers fell seriously ill there. But Antilles banana growers continued to use the pesticide.
photo caption: The Trump administration unveiled a regulatory
rollback of the Waters of the U.S. rule, meant to protect
streams and wetlands from pollution and development. (Photo:
“Piece by piece, molecule by molecule, Trump is handing over
our country to corporate polluters and other industrial
interests at the expense of our future.”
By Julia Conley, staff writer
Sixty percent of U.S. waterways will be at risk for pollution
from corporate giants, critics say, following the Trump
administration’s announcement Tuesday that it will roll back
an Obama-era water rule meant to protect Americans’ drinking
water and all the waterways that flow into it.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the
Obama administration’s 2015 Waters of the U.S. rule (WOTUS)
rule would be redefined and no longer protect many of the
nation’s streams and wetlands.
“This is an early Christmas gift to polluters and a lump of
coal for everyone else,” said Bob Irvin, president of the
national advocacy group American Rivers. “Too many people are
living with unsafe drinking water. Low-income communities,
indigenous peoples, and communities of color are hit hardest
by pollution and river degradation.”
Under the Trump administration’s proposal, which Common Dreams
reported as imminent last week, streams that flow only after
rainfall or snowfall will no longer be protected from
pollution by developers, agricultural companies, and the
fossil fuel industry. Wetlands that are not connected to
larger waterways will also not be protected, with developers
potentially able to pave over those water bodies.
“The Trump administration will stop at nothing to reward polluting industries and endanger our most treasured resources.” —Jon Devine, NRDC
EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested that WOTUS
had created unfair roadblocks for industries, farmers, and
ranchers who wanted to build and work near the nation’s
waterways and were kept from doing so because of the potential
for water pollution.
But green groups slammed the EPA for once again putting the
interests of businesses ahead of the families which rely on
the rule that keeps at least 60 percent of the nation’s
drinking water sources safe from pollution while also
protecting wildlife and ecosystems which thrive in wetlands
across the country.
“The Trump administration will stop at nothing to reward
polluting industries and endanger our most treasured
resources,” Jon Devine, director of the Natural Resources
Defense Council’s (NRDC) federal water program, said in a
statement. “Given the problems facing our lakes, streams and
wetlands from the beaches of Florida to the drinking water of
Toledo, now is the time to strengthen protections for our
waterways, not weaken them.”
Ken Kopocis, the top water official at the EPA under President
Barack Obama, told the Los Angeles Times that the regulatory
rollback will create potential for the pollution of larger
bodies of water, even though they are technically still
covered under WOTUS and the Clean Water Act.
“You can’t protect the larger bodies of water unless you
protect the smaller ones that flow into them,” said Kopocis.
“You end up with a situation where you can pollute or destroy
smaller streams and bodies, and it will eventually impact the
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch,
called the revised WOTUS rule a “steamroller” to environmental
oversight that American families rely on.
“Piece by piece, molecule by molecule, Trump is handing over
our country to corporate polluters and other industrial
interests at the expense of our future,” said Hauter.
“The proposed rule will take us back five decades in our
effort to clean up our waterways,” argued Theresa Pierno of
the National Parks Conservancy Association (NPCA). “We must
ensure clean water protections extend to all streams,
wetlands, lakes and rivers that contribute to the health of
larger water bodies downstream, and our communities, parks,
and wildlife that depend on them.”
“We will fight to ensure the highest level of protections for
our nation’s waters—for our health, our communities and our
parks,” Pierno added.