While air pollution during the winter season in Kabul is turning into a disaster, the residents remain unaware of its invisible damages to their health and, most importantly, the vulnerability of sensitive groups (particularly children) to the impacts. In the present circumstances, raising awareness is highly important because it alerts residents of air pollution hazards and how to reduce their exposure. It informs them of the consequences of burning pollutant fuels (particularly raw coal) and encourages them to take action. Thus, government intervention to educate the residents is needed more than ever.
This policy brief explores air pollution's impact on children's health and addresses the unprecedented severity of air pollution during the cold season. It also provides key actions (public awareness and regulations) that policymakers can take to mitigate the intensity of air pollution in the short-term and in the long run to ensure clean, breathable air.
A blanket of toxic particulates covers Kabul in the winter and endangers people's health. The WHO estimates in 2017 revealed: "deaths due to environmental risks constitute 26% of all deaths in Afghanistan". According to the 2018 Afghanistan Health Survey, nearly 11% of children suffered from Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).
Air pollution during the season is one of the biggest threats to children's health, making them the most vulnerable to respiratory and other illnesses. Children are more exposed to the adverse effects of air pollution due to the context in which they live. Their development is negatively affected by ambient air pollution (outdoor air pollution) and household air pollution.
Unfortunately, public understanding of air pollution is rudimentary. Most people know that air pollution is harmful but have not realized how bad it is for their own and their children's health and development. Each year, air pollution worsens, and most of Kabul's residents remain unaware of its perils. Thus, it is critical more than ever to alert the residents about air pollution and its consequences. Increasing public awareness about air pollution and engaging the public as part of the solution can play an essential role in reducing air pollution.
Air Pollution and Public Knowledge:
Unfortunately, no official study has been conducted to indicate residents' knowledge and attitudes about air pollution. Kabul residents are aware of air pollution but less aware of the causes and how they could be involved in the solution. More importantly, residents are pressured to use certain energy sources as they are cheaper and more available.
Ambient Air Pollution and Lethal Effects on Children's Health:
Even an unborn child is not safe from the adverse effects of air pollution. Recent studies revealed that black carbon particles could even reach the organ responsible for feeding the fetus (the placenta). Maternal exposure to fine air pollution, especially to particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO₂), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), ozone (O₃) and carbon dioxide, can increase the likelihood of low birth weight, premature birth, miscarriage, and infants born small for their gestational age. As toxic emissions during winter in Kabul rise to hazardous levels, it could even increase infant mortality. Strong evidence suggests that ambient air pollution has a detrimental influence on children's neurodevelopment, which could affect their cognitive and intellectual development.
After birth, children are more susceptible to air pollution hazards as they breathe faster than adults. A newborn child takes 30-40 breaths a minute while a three-year-old takes 20-30. An adult, meanwhile, takes 12-18 breaths per minute. Thus, breathing 2-3 times more than adults means inhaling more pollution at a stage of life where their lungs, brains, and other organs are developing. Additionally, young children are more inclined to play outside, making them more susceptible to toxic particulates. Seasonal air pollution in Kabul worsens each year, reaching a level described as "deadly." The effects leave children with reduced lung function problems, aggravated asthma, respiratory infections, adverse effects on neurological development, and diabetes.
Meanwhile, children (particularly newborns and infants from low-income families) are not safe inside the house either, since fuels used in cooking are also unsafe to be around. They are subjected to household air pollution, which, according to WHO estimates, causes over 27,000 deaths per year in Afghanistan. In 2018, the Afghanistan Health Survey showed that nearly 11% of children suffered from Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) in Afghanistan.
Critical Sources of Air Pollution in Kabul:
During winter in Kabul, significant sources of air pollutants come from burning wood, raw coal, plastic, car tires, and used vehicle fuel. They are mainly used for heating and cooking. This is in addition to emissions released by second-hand vehicles, powered generators, industrial brick kilns, low-quality fuel, public bathhouses, bakeries, and restaurants.
The severity of Air Pollution in Kabul:
According to the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency 2018 report, the average of the nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide mean values and the average of (PM₁₀ & PM₂.₅) exceeded the defined standard at least twofold. For example, in January, the average nitrogen dioxide monthly mean value was reported at 212 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³), and the set standard was 80 µg/m³. The sulfur dioxide average mean value in January was 168 µg/m³ exceeding the standard (50 µg/m³) threefold. The PM₁₀ and PM₂.₅ average concentration in December was 1002 µg/m³ and 361 µg/m³ accordingly while the air quality standard for PM₁₀ was 150 µg/m³ and 75 µg/m³ for PM₂.₅ in 24 hours.
Based on the Air Quality Index (AQI) system of measuring toxic particles in the air, Kabul's air quality during winter was consistently rated as "hazardous." The index ranges from 0-500, and Kabul crosses 400 during the night and early morning (0-50 good; 51-100 moderate; 101-150 unhealthy to sensitive people; 151-200 unhealthy; 201-300 very unhealthy; 301-500 hazardous).
Seasonal air pollution in Kabul must be taken seriously, and efforts against it must start soon. Government intervention in raising awareness and applying regulations is vital. Residents must become aware of the invisible destructive effects of air pollution on their children's health and development and learn how to get involved in solving this life-threatening issue. Fighting for clean air is a life-long process that requires the responsible engagement of both government and citizens.
Sayed Mujtaba is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.
This article has also been published in Dari by Etilaatroz. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.