People surrounded by toxic fumes on their day-to-day commute are about to find out just how bad the suffocating air they breathe in really is – in never-heard-before detail.
Globally, seven million people are estimated to die each year from breathing in toxic air particles – 650,000 of them children.
More than 90 per cent of the world’s population are forced to breathe polluted air, data from the World Health Organisation shows.
Not so in Australia, where clean air is usually taken for granted.
It was only during this year’s catastrophic bushfires that millions of Aussies would have experienced first-hand what it is like to breathe in choking fumes for weeks on end.
In December, Sydney’s air quality soared as high as 12 times hazardous levels due to bushfire smoke from nearby mega-blazes in New South Wales.
It’s a different story in places like China and India.
There, hazardous levels of pollution in the air is the daily norm for billions of people in densely populated cities.
But many wouldn’t even know just how much of a threat the polluted smog is to their health.
For example, in Africa – a continent home to 1.3 billion people – there are only 50 publicly accessible air quality monitoring stations measuring dangerous particles.
That is about to change.
To help people around the world monitor air pollution, the United Nations and Swiss tech company IQAir have created an enormous international database that tracks air quality in real time.
People will be able to check pollution levels in sections of cities, even down to specific streets (researchers have found air quality can differ greatly even between suburbs and even between nearby roads).
Launched at the 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi on Monday, the database reaches more than 15 million users and covers more than 7000 cities worldwide.
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) deputy executive director Joyce Msuya labelled air pollution a “public health emergency and an environmental emergency that affects everyone, everywhere”.
The database intends to educate people in poorer areas – who wouldn’t normally have access to information about air quality – so they can demand more action from their governments.
IQAir CEO Frank Hammes said “some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by poor air quality”.
The most harmful kind of particles, called PM2.5, can penetrate deep into our lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases like stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.
Which cities had the worst air quality in the world on Monday, according to the real-time data?
For years, Shenyang – the capital and largest city of China’s north-east Liaoning Province – has been synonymous with unbearable air pollution.
The city is home to more than 7.2 million people and is heavily centred around heavy fossil-fuel industries like coal mining.
On Monday, the city’s air pollution hit 316 on the database’s air quality index. Any value larger than 300 is considered to be hazardous, while an AQI value from 0 to 50 represents good air quality.
Chinese state media have previously blamed the local government for not doing enough to combat the city’s toxic smog.
Meanwhile, the most polluted air in Mongolia was in Ulaanbaatar, where 46 per cent of the country’s population lives.
In November, black smoke emanating from rice stubble burn-offs in India swept into the Pakistani city of Lahore, outraging residents who declared an “air apocalypse”.
The city’s air quality has often been likened to Delhi in India.
To check the air quality in your city, click here.