Wellness |

The Air We Breathe

Wellness | 21 October 2022

1. The Air That We Breathe In Indonesia

20,000. 

That’s the number of breaths that we take every single day on average, around 11,000 liters of air inhaled and exhaled. The element that we generally think about when breathing is oxygen - but did you know that each of our breaths contains just 21% of oxygen? Around 79% is nitrogen, 0.04% carbon dioxide and the rest are other gases. Except if the air is polluted, then it has other elements in it.

 

So, what is air pollution? 

There are other elements that end up in the air that we breathe. Generally, we should be splitting them into Gases and Particles. This is because the risk to health of each can be different. 

 

The key gases that the World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted as being dangerous to human health include - Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Dioxide. 

 

The WHO also states that Particulate Matter is especially dangerous to human health, more specifically PM2.5. At just 2.5 microns wide, they are particles smaller than a human hair and visible only through an electron microscope. We’ll get back to PM2.5 in the next section, so let’s chat about what are acceptable levels of pollutants in the air and where they come from. 

 

In 2021, the WHO revised their recommendations for yearly exposure to PM2.5 drastically downwardsfrom 10 ug/m3 to 5 ug/m3. This means that each year we should, on average, be breathing no more than 5 ug/m3. 

 

How does that compare to the air quality in Indonesia? Let’s take a look at some charts: 

As you can see, in 2021 the average PM2.5 yearly exposure in Jabodetabek was between 36 ug/m3 and 49 ug/m3. Breaking down even further, places like Serpong and Bintaro were recording PM2.5 levels over 10 times the WHO guideline - 56 ug/m3 and 57 ug/m3 respectively. 

 

Until now, air pollution was primarily labelled a Jakarta problem. The data from Nafas, a pollution monitoring system,  from January to July 2022 proves otherwise. 

For the first 7 months of the year, air pollution in Bandung averaged at 40 ug/m3, Yogyakarta at 36 ug/m3 and Surabaya at 32 ug/m3. All of these are still far above the WHO Guideline.So it is not just Jakarta that is suffering. It is all the major cities.

 

So where does this pollution come from? 

The concentration of PM2.5 pollution in any given area depends on two things: 

  1. What are the hyperlocal sources? 
  2. What are the geographical and meteorological features in this area? 

The breakdown of air pollution sources by area can be very different, but in general they fall into one of the following categories: 

  • Man-made
    • Agricultural crop burning
    • Factories & heavy industries
    • Transportation & logistics
    • Energy generation
    • Small & medium businesses
    • Waste burning - industrial & small scale
  • Natural
    • Forest Fires,
    • Volcanoes,
    • Dust Storms

As some of these sources are seasonal (i.e. agricultural burning), the pollution concentrations may vary throughout the year. 

Geography and meteorology both influence how concentrated PM2.5 can get. Bandung, for example, is surrounded by mountains which means that PM2.5 pollution frequently gets trapped. 

 

The seasons also play a role in pollution levels - during the dry season the amount of wind and rain is significantly lower, causing “stale air” and higher concentrations of PM2.5. In the rainy season, the opposite can happen - although it is wind, not rain that has the larger impact. 

 

Three not-so-fun facts about PM2.5 air pollution

Not So Fun Fact #1: Trees Don’t Reduce PM2.5

Nafas sensors located in places with large “green” areas have shown that trees don’t significantly reduce PM2.5 pollution. A study from the US EPA showed that PM2.5 removal by trees can only be up to 0.24%, quite insignificant.
 

Here’s the YTD data from a few of these locations: 

(CHART - Serpong, Bintaro, Cibubur, Harapan Indah vs. WHO Guideline)

Not So Fun Fact #2: PM2.5 Pollution Can Travel 1,000s of km.

Sources of air pollution do not need to be in our neighborhood for it to have an impact. Some of the reasons why “Green” areas have heightened pollution levels may be due to “Transboundary Pollution” - coming in from other sources. 

 

For example, many studies have shown that PM2.5 pollution from forest fires, coal power plants, factories and agricultural burning have enshrouded large cities with thick smoke.

 

Not So Fun Fact #3: Pollution Can Be Worst In The Morning

Due to the way our atmosphere behaves, air pollution levels generally follow a trendline that looks like this: 

The way the surface of our planet heats up and cools has an impact on the planetary boundary layer, the first layer within our atmosphere which expands and contracts, having a direct impact on concentrations of PM2.5 

 

On average in cities with high PM2.5 levels, Nafas has seen that air pollution can be worse in the morning - a big health hazard for those who like to exercise. 

 

So what can we do about this seemingly impossible challenge: how to find somewhere to live that does not have these hidden hazards in the air we breathe? Well first you need to log on to nafas.com and check what the current levels of pollution are in the areas you live work and play. Then you have to decide if that is something you can tolerate. If not there are only two solutions: one, move to an unpolluted area. Or two install air filters in your house and office to at least get some relief while you work and sleep. For more information please contact Piotr Jakubowski at [email protected]

 

2. The Silent Killer: How PM2.5 Pollution Affects Our Bodies

10,000,000. 

That’s the estimated number of premature deaths each year related to air pollution, of which PM2.5 plays a very key role. That’s more than smoking, malnutrition, AIDS, drugs and alcohol, road accidents and war. 

 

In fact, 6 of the top 10 NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are connected to air pollution including ischemic heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and others.
(Chart)

 

Small Particle, Big Problem 

The small size of PM2.5 (30x smaller than a grain of sand) means that it is extra dangerous for the human body. Research has shown that PM2.5 particles make their way deep into our lungs, where they accumulate over time. PM2.5 is actually a measure of size, and the molecular structure of each particle can be different - it can include sea salt, dust, trace metals, microplastics and others.

Scientists have also proven that the same PM2.5 particles can break through the alveolar walls and enter into our bloodstream. Once these particles get inside the bloodstream, our body tries to fight the foreign objects causing inflammation to occur. 

 

Long-term exposure to high levels of PM2.5 are a key cause of a lot of the health issues that we experience through the course of our lives. 

 

PM2.5 Pollution - A Lifetime of Health Issues

At Nafas, we call PM2.5 pollution a lifecycle problem because it impacts people at every single point of our lives - from fetus to small child to adolescent to adult and old age. 

 

Studies have shown PM2.5 particles and black carbon (another by-product of air pollution) being found in the placenta of pregnant women - showcasing its impact on the mother’s womb. 

In 2015, Chinese journalist Chai Jing released a self-funded documentary titled “Under The Dome” (click here to watch) where she investigated the impact of air pollution on human health based on her own journey - her child was born with health issues after she continued working in high pollution conditions during the pregnancy. 

PM2.5 and Our Bodies

There are over 250,000 research papers published with the keywords “PM2.5” and “health effects” - but I would like to bring your attention to just 2 papers published quite recently. 

 

In April 2021, Seoul National University published a longitudinal study of the impact of PM2.5 exposure during exercise on health, following over 1 million people aged 20-35. They discovered that regular exercise in PM2.5 levels of 26 ug/m3 or above increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 33% compared to those who don’t exercise at all. 

 

This is a staggering number, because in July 2022, the average PM2.5 levels during exercise hours (5AM-8AM) in key areas with Nafas sensors was: 

In September 2022, University College London published a study proving the causality of PM2.5 in the development of lung cancer especially among never-smokers. They discovered that inactive cancerous cells in our bodies can be activated by PM2.5 pollution, eventually causing lung cancer. 

 

PM2.5 and Our Children

Children under the age of 5 have one of the highest risk-profiles for impact from PM2.5 pollution. The key reason for this is that they inhale a higher concentration of pollution per kilogram of body weight. 

(Sketch - PM2.5 child vs Adult)

Rapid neuroskeletal development among children is severely impacted by exposure to high levels of PM2.5, and has shown to cause things like reduced IQ, reduced lung capacity, lowered neurological function and many others. 

 

A recent 2020 study from Taiwan showed that PM2.5 exposure above 16 ug/m3 for children under the age of 3 increased the risk of ADHD. 

 

We now know the impact of long term exposure to PM2.5, so now how do we protect our health? 

 

3. Protecting Ourselves from PM2.5 Pollution 

That’s the number of minutes that the average person can survive without breathing before we start to permanently damage our bodies. Since it is so automatic, we tend to forget how important breathing is for our survival. 

 

And now we’ve learned that breathing clean air is a key part of leading a healthy lifestyle. With high PM2.5 pollution levels in many urban areas in Indonesia - how can you protect yourself and your family. 

 

The best way to lower the amount of PM2.5 pollution that you are breathing is to reduce your exposure to it.  Here are 3 key ways to be able to do this:

  1. Check PM2.5. Take Action. 

Air quality data published in near-real time gives us an ability to be able to manage our lifestyle decisions - the same as weather information does.

 

You wouldn’t go for a run when it’s pouring rain outside, right?  So why should you go running when PM2.5 pollution is high?  The Nafas app is connected to over 180 locations in Jabodetabek, Bandung, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Malang, Bali and Belitung to provide you with accurate information about current air quality levels.

As a rule of thumb, when air pollution outside is “Unhealthy”, we shouldn’t be outside for long periods of time - especially our kids. To make things easier, Nafas includes a feature called “Alerts” - just set the time you would like to receive an alert for a particular sensor and voila!

If You Must Be Outside, Mask Up. 

Facemasks aren’t just a strategy to reduce risk of COVID transmission. 

Breathing PM2.5 levels of 22 ug/m3 throughout the entire day is the equivalent of smoking 1 cigarette according to a study from Berkeley Earth.  When outdoors for an extended period of time, one of the things we can do to protect our health is to wear a mask designed for PM2.5 pollution. 

 

Masks that are certified “N95” are usually a great choice, just be sure that you choose one that has a great fit around your nose and mouth. If you exercise outdoor regularly, there are special masks for runners under the Respro or Zulu brands - both are available on e-commerce in Indonesia. 

 

Outdoor Pollution Gets Inside - Make Your Indoor Areas Healthy 

Natural ventilation is a feature that gets designed into homes in the tropics, and it is a great feature to have…if outdoor air quality is good.  Through our work in the air quality space we have discovered that buildings in Indonesia (and other tropical countries) are quite “leaky”. This happens because naturally, we don’t need to heat our buildings. This also means that PM2.5 pollution has a way of getting into our house, especially in the middle of the night.  That’s why we need to measure indoor air quality, and clean it!

 

It is now simple to measure your indoor air quality - there are indoor air monitoring devices you can buy on e-commerce sites. These will give you a real-time reading of air quality in your home.  

Cleaning your air, especially in bedrooms, is an important part of living in a polluted urban area in Indonesia. Always make sure that you use HEPA filter technology - the Lancet and many scientists around the world recommend to stay away from additional technology like UV, Plasma or Ionization as the additional benefits are unclear. You can read an open letter about this issue from Dr. Marwa Zaatari, signed by the world’s top air quality experts by clicking here

 

Nafas integrates both air quality monitors and filters into the app ecosystem through a partnership with Aria, a local brand of connected electronics. Click here to check them out today!