From an environmental standpoint, few would dispute that Barbados is one of the most pristine places on earth to live. Indeed, it is a major reason why thousands of visitors flock our shores every year to enjoy the beaches and savour the fresh air blowing in from the ocean, among other things.
Our relatively pristine environment represents an invaluable asset we should never take for granted. However, there are a few unwholesome practices which have emerged in recent years and seriously threaten, if allowed to go unchecked, what thousands in other parts of the world would love to have.
We refer, for example, to the pollution caused by many poorly maintained vehicles on our roads, including trucks and buses, which belch copious volumes of thick, toxic black fumes into the atmosphere, seemingly indifferent to the adverse effects on persons who find themselves exposed.
There is also the practice of persons indiscriminately burning refuse in populated neighbourhoods or spraying with pungent, toxic herbicides and other chemicals with no consideration whatsoever for persons who happen to be downwind and will be exposed.
Hopefully, alarming data published today by the World Health Organization (WHO), drawing attention to the deadly effects of air pollution around the world, will serve as a wake-up call and cause us in Barbados to better appreciate and safeguard what we have, not only for our continued benefit but also for future generations.
The data, released by WHO in a report to coincide with the unveiling of a new air quality model, estimated that 92 per cent of the world’s population was living in places with poor outdoors air quality which was contributing to the premature deaths of some three million people annually.
Most of these deaths are occurring in low and middle income countries in south-east Asia and the western Pacific, with China, followed by India, topping the list. “Ninety-four per cent are due to non-communicable diseases – notably cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Air pollution also increases the risks for acute respiratory infections,” the report said.
Based in Geneva, WHO is a specialized agency of the United Nations with responsibility for providing global leadership on critical public health issues and promoting technical cooperation among countries in the search for effective solutions to common problems. Emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, landfills, the burning of waste and livestock production were identified as the main pollutants of the outdoors.
The new air quality model, based on data derived from satellite measurements, air transport models and ground station monitors for more than 3000 locations, represents the most detailed outdoor air pollution-related health data, by country, ever reported by WHO. Altogether, 184 countries are covered, including Barbados and several other Caribbean countries. Forty four deaths here annually are attributed to air pollution.
Given the serious threat which air pollution poses to public health, it is about time that our authorities take a tougher stance, for example, against vehicles which pollute the atmosphere as they go along. They need to be taken off the roads until the particular problem is corrected. Repeated calls have been made over the years for the relevant authorities to take such action but it seems these calls have largely fallen on deaf ears. The same needs to be done in relation to indiscriminate burning and spraying.
Compared with 30 years ago when few Barbadians, especially children, were known to have the complaint, it seems today that we have an epidemic of asthma on the island. Could this be confirmation of a deterioration in air quality as asthma is an illness affecting the body’s respiratory system? Irritants such as smoke, air pollution, and chemicals are known triggers of asthma attacks.
WHO has also drawn attention to the impact of indoor air pollution which, together with the outdoor problem, constitute what is described as “the single biggest environmental health crisis we face”. Indoor air pollution was blamed for 4.3 million premature deaths annually with dirty cooking stoves, kerosene and diesel fuels listed among the main contributors.
Air pollution is largely a man-made problem; therefore, it requires a man-made solution. While national authorities must take the lead in coming up with effective public policy, the average citizen has an equally important contribution to make by avoiding or abandoning practices which contribute to or aggravate the problem.
Clean air is essential to life as it is the source of oxygen which is the fuel of our bodies. Clearly, a matter of life or death. Committing to ensure that the air around us remains free of harmful particles must be seen as everybody’s business. Everyone can make an important contribution to the clean air effort, beginning here in Barbados.