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Air pollution threatens national health

Update: April, 09/2012 - 11:35

According to the 2012 Environmental Performance Index released at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Viet Nam is one of the ten countries with the worst air pollution among 132 countries whose environments were surveyed in relation to effects on human health. Viet Nam News reporters Mai Linh and Bich Huong spoke with representatives from environmental management bodies and health experts.

What do you think about the findings? Can you assess air quality in Viet Nam's urban areas?

Dang Van Loi, deputy director of the Pollution Control Department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE)'s Viet Nam Environment Administration (VEA)


Dang Van Loi
International institutions have their own criteria to assess air quality and the criteria are somehow different from those used in Viet Nam. However, their findings should be a warning for Viet Nam. According to data from the VEA, air quality in urban areas is becoming worse. In Ha Noi, coarse particle pollution PM10, PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter between 2.5 and 10 micrometres) is the biggest contributor to air pollution. Coarse particles are airborne pollutants tiny enough to penetrate the human respiratory system, causing respiratory illness.

At construction sites and heavy traffic areas, PM10 concentration is double or triple the allowable level, and during peak time, the concentration is 6-7 times higher than regulated.

Urban air pollution is mainly caused by transport activities, manufacturing, construction and domestic daily activities. At present, we have yet to establish the exact proportion of these contributors to air pollution. However, it is estimated that transport activities account for 60-70 per cent of pollutant sources in major cities such as Ha Noi and HCM City.

Chu Manh Hung, Director of the Ministry of Transport's Department of Environment


Chu Manh Hung
Urban air pollution is becoming worse and worse, especially in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City due to rapid urbanisation. Air pollution in many areas exceeds the allowed limits.

The VEA announced that about 60-70 per cent of air pollution in Ha Noi is attributed to vehicle emissions.

The figure reflects the seriousness of air pollution in big cities nowadays.

More research is needed to attain a more accurate percentage of vehicle emissions. In Ha Noi for instance, Pham Hung, Khuat Duy Tien and Pham Van Dong suffer from severe dust pollution.

The outburst of construction in the process of urbanisation has resulted in increasing dust pollution. Meanwhile, efforts to minimise dust by project investors are minimal.

In addition, dust kicked up by vehicles on the city's roads is also a problem and the number of private vehicles is increasing rapidly.

Can you explain the impacts of air pollution on human health?

Takeshi Kasai, WHO representative to Vietnam


Takeshi Kasai
Gas emissions from motor vehicles are a main source of pollutants. Fumes containing carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and lead dioxide are discharged into the air. These pollutants affect the lungs and can lead to pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular diseases, and increased susceptibility to asthma.

In many cities where industrial parks and handicraft villages are located, gas emission from industries such as cement factories, mining and milling plants contribute to air pollution.

Roads and street surfaces contribute to high ambient dust concentrations, often above the allowable limit. Dust itself can be toxic as it carries bacteria and fungi into the human body and can cause respiratory, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular diseases, as well as eye and skin cancer.

Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh, environment health lecturer at Ha Noi School of Public Health

Hanh: Exposed to polluted air, people are at risk of acute symptoms such as headache, allergies, fatigue and dizziness, and at more serious level, it can be fatal. Studies show that residents living in cities with high air pollution levels face risks of chronic diseases including respiratory diseases (e.g., pneumonia, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and asthma), low birth weight, cataracts, and cardiovascular problems.

Air pollution is a threat to everyone, but the most vulnerable groups are children, pregnant women, the elderly or housewives who use biomass fuel for cooking. According to the WHO, in 2006, Viet Nam was among countries with the highest mortality rates due to ambient air pollution (200-230 cases per million people per year).

What measures have been taken to mitigate urban air pollution in Viet Nam?

Loi: Besides the MONRE, other ministries, sectors and agencies have bodies responsible for environment-related issues.

In addition to the Law on Environment, the bodies issue regulations and conduct inspections on environmental protection in general and on air quality in particular.

Hung: Developed countries in the world mitigate air pollution caused by motor vehicles by raising the quality of vehicle engines to reduce emissions. Old vehicles coupled with poor vehicle maintenance also makes the situation worse. In an effort to ease air pollution caused by vehicle emissions, the Ministry of Transport is implementing a project to control environmental pollution which was ratified by the Prime Minister last year.

The Viet Nam Register Department has been in charge of charge of the project to control emissions from motor vehicles operating in cities.

What would you recommend to the country's policy-makers to improve air quality and mitigate its impacts on public health?

Takeshi Kasai: The WHO has provided support to the Ministry of Health on indoor air quality issues since 2010. At present, the WHO in co-operation with the Ministry of Health, has initiated the process for designing research on health impacts from air pollution; however, this will require some time before we can obtain data.

Air quality control requires the commitment, co-operation and shared effort of all relevant governmental agencies, organisations and individuals. It is expected that Viet Nam will issue indoor air quality standards at the end of 2012. Once this is complete, Viet Nam should develop a legislation that enforces the reduction of air pollution. Viet Nam should develop appropriate policies to reduce the numbers of gas emitting vehicles that are the main source of air pollution in cities.

In addition, regulations are needed to guarantee the quality of gasoline used in motor vehicles in which higher standard gasoline should be applied. Increased research on health impacts from air pollution can provide reliable evidence and data for policy makers and the public to pay more attention to air quality issues.

Loi: To improve urban air quality, concerted efforts and comprehensive measures are needed. These include improving the legal framework, developing urban transport infrastructure and public transport, raising public awareness of environmental health and environmental protection and improving air monitoring stations in urban areas.

Hung: In my opinion, the most important thing to do now is reduce dust pollution, something that should be assigned to local authorities.

Inspections of vehicles' emission should also be increased.

Public transport should be encouraged in big cities to reduce the use of private vehicles, which could help reduce air pollution.

However, public transport companies themselves must move towards developing a greener bus system like a scheme being tested in HCM City. The City has recently put into operation five buses that run on compressed natural gas which are environmentally friendly.

Viet Nam could also learn from European cities, such as Berlin, to have a "pollution map." The map regulates which vehicles can operate in certain areas of the city.

What can people do to minimise the impacts of air pollution to their health?

Takeshi Kasai: As many people spend most of their time in offices, schools, hospitals and public buildings or at home, indoor air quality is very important. Indoor air can be improved through better ventilation systems, appropriate humidity levels and a reduction in smoke from cooking including the use of "bee-hive" coke. Tobacco use also contributes to indoor air pollution and is a main cause of respiratory disease in Viet Nam. Regular health check-ups can prevent the spread and/or provide an early cure for serious respiratory diseases caused by air pollutants.

Hanh: It's good to encourage the use of public transport, walking or riding bicycle if it's convenient. But I see that with current transport infrastructure, it's hard to encourage people to use public transportation or to walk because the pavements are occupied by trade or parking facilities, and walking on the road is really dangerous.


Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh
– If you are stopped by a red light traffic for over 20 seconds, you should turn the engine off.

– Wear a mask and glasses when you are on road, and take a bath when you arrive home to remove dirt from your skin.

– Minimise the use of biomass fuels in cooking and heating.

– About 47.4 per cent of Vietnamese male adults smoke and many smoke indoors. Try not to smoke indoors and if possible, quit smoking.

– Go for a medical check-up at least once a year. — VNS

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