What prompted me to write this blog was a recent trip to the rapidly growing Asian city of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The name of the city is not that important however because this blog applies to other fast growing cities and many long established cities around the globe. I was last in Kuala Lumpur around 12 years ago. Back then the government had big plans to convert what was a relatively undeveloped city into a metropolis, the equal of anything in the developed world. Twelve years on and judging from the large number of skyscrapers, hotels, new roads, apartment blocks, shopping centres and expanded railway system, the government could with some justification state “Mission accomplished”, to paraphrase George W. Bush.
But the breakneck speed of development has come at a price. Pedestrian crossings are ignored and the traffic so congested crossing a road at peak hour is not worth the risk. The constant noise. Footpaths with cracked and uneven surfaces. Inadequate gutters and drains and strange smells coming from storm water. For me however, the most troubling aspect of all this “development” was the quality of the air. You can wear earplugs to keep out the noise. You can get used to taking your life in your hands every time you cross the road, and you can learn to take special care when walking on cracked and uneven pavements. However there is really very little you can do about the quality of the air you breathe – we have to breathe to live!
While the poor quality of the air was obvious at street level, it was much more dramatic looking down from the aircraft as my wife and I flew into the city. All we could see was a dirty opaque haze, enveloping the city. As we descended into the haze to land I began to wonder – Where did the haze come from? What is in polluted city air? And more importantly: Is it safe and what does it do to our bodies? Can it increase the risk of disease? And, if it does, which diseases? I made a mental note to look into the topic when I arrived back in Australia. We know quite a lot about air pollution, because many cities around the world have been monitoring both the levels of air pollution and the types of pollutants for many years. Sadly, we know far less about the long-term health effects of air pollution. Read the rest of this entry »