IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Travel Health Journal

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Air pollution and travel: How to stay safe and reduce your impact

Since lockdowns were imposed around the world to combat the spread of COVID-19, industrial activity largely grinded to a halt. This has led to the sharpest drop in carbon emissions since air pollution data was first recorded – by early April, daily global emissions had fallen by 17% compared to 2019 data.

For cities and regions around the world struggling with consistently poor air quality this comes as a welcome reprieve, especially as exposure to air pollution may contribute to worsening symptoms of COVID-19 or increased mortality.

In this blog, we highlight important information about air pollution, including the recent changes we’ve made to our country-specific air pollution data, and tips on how you can reduce your exposure and impact. International travellers – who both contribute to pollution and are vulnerable to its health effects – can be important actors in the fight to improve air quality. When travel resumes, we have an opportunity and responsibility to take a healthier path.

Key things you should know about air pollution

Air pollution is a significant global threat to human health. Each year, air pollution is responsible for 5 million deaths: 91% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and 97% of cities in these countries do not meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines.

Air pollution has been linked to various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, increased mortality, and lower productivity. It’s often called a silent, sometimes invisible’ killer, as deaths are directly caused by breathing polluted air. Poor air quality affects us all, but newborns, young children, and the elderly are more vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution.

There are numerous factors that contribute to air pollution. The tourism industry, for example, has a substantial impact. In a typical year billions of people travel internationally, often putting pressure on local environments and communities, contributing to global emissions. In fact, transportation accounts for 90% of the tourism industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Low-resource island nations are particularly vulnerable to the negative environmental effects of tourism, as travellers increase the demand for already-limited natural resources.

Updating our air pollution data

In the past few months, we’ve been working on updating our air quality information to include more specific data so you can be better prepared for your destination. Updates include details on annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 (a mixture of hazardous particles, otherwise known as ‘particulate matter’, with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm), major cities with consistently poor air quality, key sources of pollutants, and seasonal variations in pollution.

Common sources of air pollutants

Air pollutants come from a wide range of sources, both natural and human-generated. The most common sources include:

  • Vehicles: Motor vehicles release significant amounts of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants which contribute to smog.
  • Heat and power generation: Reliance on fossil fuel extraction for electricity contributes to negative environmental and human health effects. In addition to land degradation and pollution, fossil fuel processes emit toxins and global warming emissions. These emissions include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and mercury.
  • Waste burning: Incinerators are common in high-income countries, while open waste burning is common in low-income countries where there are inadequate waste management systems. Waste burning emits greenhouse gases, particulate matter, and dangerous carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) such as dioxins, furans, and black carbon.
  • Manufacturing: The manufacturing industry continues to grow globally as people consume more products than ever before. Factories emit many greenhouse gases and can contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

Seasonal variations

Depending on your destination, there may be seasonal variations in air pollutants. These exist because of either:

  • Natural sources: Wind patterns, dust storms, forest/bush fire season, rainy seasons, and humidity.
  • Human sources: Biomass (plant or animal matter used as fuel) burning and an increased use of heating systems.

In Malaysia, for example, higher than normal levels of air pollution exist during the dry season (typically from June to August) due to forest fire haze. Travellers visiting during this time may need to take additional precautions to reduce their exposure. For more country-specific information like this, visit our Country Health Advice Database.

Reduce your exposure

Although air pollution is unavoidable, you can do a variety of things to minimize your exposure. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Before you travel, visit your health practitioner – especially if you have a lung or respiratory condition, or are an older traveller. Travellers with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should consult their doctor about travelling with an inhaler, antibiotic, or oral steroid. Pregnant travellers and travellers with newborns/young children should avoid destinations with higher levels of air pollution as much as possible. (See our previous air pollution blog post for more info on what to consider before your appointment).
  • Stay up to date with the local air quality advisories. Our Country Health Advice database includes information regarding the most recent annual PM2.5 levels recorded, key cities with high levels of pollution, seasonal changes in air quality, and sources of pollutants. In addition, you can visit The World Air Quality Index Project, which provides real-time air quality monitoring in many areas worldwide.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about whether a face mask is right for you. Note that face masks do not fully filter out all pollutants, but they can reduce your exposure to larger pollution particles. If you decide to wear a face mask, opt for N95 and N99 masks and make sure the mask is fitted professionally (it is otherwise ineffective).

Offsetting your footprint

The tourism industry accounts for a staggering 8% of all carbon emissions. For many of us, travel is a privilege and we owe it to the people and places we visit to be respectful and conscious of our impact. For your next trip, consider the following as ways you can reduce your footprint:

  • Travelling modes: If you have the means to, take a train, bus, or a car to your destination. If you must fly, consider looking for nonstop flights. 25% of a plane’s emissions is produced by takeoff and landing.
  • Transit modes: Consider taking public transit, a bike, or a tour bus instead of renting your own car to get around. Although it may not be as convenient, you will be choosing less-polluting sources of transportation while benefiting the local community by investing in their services.
  • Carbon offsets: Purchase a reduction in emissions to compensate for the same amount produced by your trip. The David Suzuki Foundation recommends buying from the Gold Standard Foundation as they focus on projects in developing countries.
  • Support local and sustainable initiatives: Make sure your tourism company, accommodation, and other travel services can demonstrate their commitment to responsible and sustainable practices. Be aware of companies that promote sustainable practices using false or unsupported claims (known as greenwashing). Look for companies that have been certified by a reputable organization.

For more, check out these organizations committed to responsible and sustainable tourism:

Image by Markus Distelrath from Pexels

Written by Phoebe To & Claire Westmacott