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Increased Monitoring of Air Pollution Could Reduce Deaths

Eight thousand people a day die from air pollution but some simple preventative steps and increased monitoring could lessen the toll, according to a recently released report by Australia's Commonwealth Science Council. Of the 3 million annual deaths, 2.8 million are from indoor air pollution. Ninety percent of the deaths occur in developing countries, according to World Health Organization estimates. Over 500,000 people a year die in China alone due to air pollution, said Peter Manins, a scientist at Australia's federal science agency, CSIRO.

The report is the result of a conference held July 19-23 in Brisbane, Australia, which examined the links between air pollution and health. The meeting was attended by experts from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

In the developed world, the greatest source of particulate matter is from diesel engines. The same is true for some developing countries.

"Transport and industrial emissions generate smog that destroys sensitive tissues (in people and animals), as well as producing fine carcinogenic particles that reduce lung function, and are ultimately responsible for many untimely deaths each year," Manins wrote in the report. But in many Asian and African countries, the indoor use of coal and biomass fuels for cooking and heating is a hidden killer. What to do about that was one focus of the conference.

"Simple steps, such as ventilation to take the smoke outside, can greatly reduce the problem," said Manins. Other steps discussed at the conference range from the practical, such as replacing biomass fuels with kerosene or natural gas, to the idealism of cities developed so that no cars are needed, and thus no car-related pollution is generated.

One thing all the attendees agreed on was that extensive air quality monitoring is crucial to ensuring public health.

To provide air monitoring capabilities to third world citizens, CSIRO has developed a tool that measures fine particulate levels. The tool, called AirWatch, costs about $390(US). The CSIRO scientists hope it can be used throughout the developing world, said Manins.

The impact of air pollution on heritage sites was also addressed at the conference. Dr. Gopalakrashne Thyagarajan monitored the impact of air pollution on the Taj Mahal.

"The marble and sandstone were being weathered by atmospheric fumes, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides," Gopalakrashne says. "We needed to take action to protect this wonder of the world, so we relocated a large power plant, closed and moved 212 coal-based small industrial units, changed the energy source of many others in the area to gas, and diverted a national highway to reduce the effects of air pollution. Public interest, awareness and pressure forced the government to move swiftly to protect a heritage site once the evidence was widely known."

"We need to move now to protect other heritage sites around the world, before it is too late," says Gopalakrashne.

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