5 myths about outdoor air quality
1. There are lots of trees and not much traffic near my home, so I’m safe.
Having trees around our homes and workplaces make us feel better and healthier. Trees are definitely important for the environment, especially with regards to climate change, but do they actually reduce air pollution?
The relationship between trees and air pollution is not yet clear. Trees do absorb a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), but they do not help much with more dangerous pollutants like PM2.5 or nitrogen oxides (NOx). These pollutants remain in the atmosphere.
Trees can also block pollutants from rising into the air. If there is a ‘roof’ where tree branches meet, such as on a beautiful boulevard, air quality can be worse because the pollutants cannot escape above the trees.
The sensors from nafas show that even in parts of Jabodetabek with lots of trees, such as Alam Sutera, air quality is poor. In June 2020, there was not a single day of good air quality in Alam Sutera, and even the day with the best AQI (107) was rated unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Trees are undeniably important and should be protected, but their presence does not mean we are safe from air pollution.
This is also the case if we live far from main roads. Air pollution can travel a long distance, even as far as 100km.1
2. Air pollution only affects people who are sensitive to it.
There are some groups of people who are sensitive to air pollution. They include children, the elderly, people with heart or lung conditions, pregnant women, people who work outdoors, and smokers. These people are more likely to experience symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing due to air pollution.
However, anyone can be affected by air pollution, especially on days with poor air quality. People who are sensitive to air pollution are simply more at risk than the average person.
3. At least Jakarta’s air quality is better than Beijing’s.
Years ago, Jakarta did indeed have better air quality than notoriously polluted Beijing. Unfortunately, this is no longer true – in 2019, the World Air Quality Report by IQAir AirVisual announced that the air quality in Jakarta was 20% worse than in Beijing. Jakarta was ranked 126th of the world’s most polluted cities, while Beijing ranked 201st. Worse still was Bekasi, which came in at number 45.
While many Chinese cities still struggle with air pollution, their air is slowly getting cleaner. Government and industry policies are becoming stricter in China, and this is leading to improvements in air quality. In Indonesia, the opposite is true, and air pollution is actually increasing. In fact, research from the University of Chicago shows that Jakarta’s air quality is now so bad that it’s cutting 4.8 years off the average resident’s lifespan.
4. I’m healthy so air pollution doesn’t affect me.
Many people believe that if we are healthy, poor air quality will not affect us. Unfortunately, this is a myth. We all need to breathe air to live, so everyone is affected by air pollution, especially if we are exposed over a long period of time.
Living a healthy lifestyle – such as eating well, exercising regularly, and not smoking – will improve our health outcomes. However, it will not protect us from being affected by air pollution.
5. I can’t see air pollution, so it can’t be that bad.
Another myth is that if the air looks clean, it must be healthy. This is not true.
We tend to associate air pollution with visible pollution like smog and black smoke, but many pollutants are invisible or too small for us to see. Particulate matter (PM) particles are coloured brown or black, but we cannot see them because they are very small in size. For example, PM2.5 particles are just 2.5 microns big (one micron is one millionth of a metre), so they are impossible to see with the naked eye. We can only see them easily when they collect together and form smog. Other pollutants like carbon monoxide are clear gases, so we cannot see them at all.
This means that even if the air looks clear, air quality can still be poor. So, it is important to always check the Air Quality Index (AQI).
1Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. 2020. https://energyandcleanair.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Jakarta-Transboundary-Pollution_FINALEnglish.pdf