Traffic is main source of deadly air pollution in Southeast Asia - WHO

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Traffic can be deadly. A new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals about 7 million people die every year due to air pollution. In Southeast Asia, most of this air pollution comes from traffic in highly urbanized areas.

Air pollution is an "invisible killer," WHO Director Maria Neira said in the Asian Development Bank's Sustainable Transport Forum on Tuesday. It accounts for a third of deaths from lung cancer and stroke, a quarter of deaths from heart disease, and as much as half of child deaths from pneumonia.

On top of that, she said, air pollution can also give people chronic illnesses, which can be expensive to treat and can decrease the quality of their lives for years.

Also read: Six million Asians die annually due to air pollution - WHO

"The air we breathe is something you don't choose. If you are in Manila, you breathe the air that is available. If you are in luck and you are in Geneva, the air you breathe is different," Neira said.

Development leaders urged governments to consider air pollution and the health risks it poses when considering transport plans.

The use of vehicles should be discouraged, said Elisea Gozun, board member of Clean Air Asia. Singapore, she cited, charges drivers hefty fees for using roads, especially during rush hour. The city-state also gives incentives for owners to turn in their older cars, making sure those on the road are clean and fuel-efficient.

Gozun said air pollution should also be considered in land use plans.

She explained, "Traffic is at its heaviest in the mornings and the afternoons as people go from where they live to where they work. But why can't we live where we work?"

Related: Senate holds first hearing to discuss emergency powers for Duterte to address transport problems

As Asian countries grow rapidly, they must choose whether they follow the American or European model of urbanization, Neria said. America has sprawling cities, often requiring the use of cars while Europe has compact cities; its streets tend to be walkable.

Latin America, the most urbanized region in the world, invested heavily in public transport — specifically, clean and sustainable modes like trains and bus rapid transit system. Jorge Kogan, senior advisor at the Development Bank of Latin America, said the same could be done here.

"The problem is, people often have more urgent needs than clean air. They want food on the table and money in their pockets. So, if people don't demand for clean air, the government doesn't have the political will to really push for it," Kogan said.

In Manila, where traffic is one of the worst in the world, commuters are vocal about air pollution.

Also read: 3 in 10 Filipinos dread their commute, says survey

"'Yung usok kasi hindi mo na maiwasan sa sasakyan yan. Tapos kapag may usok eh kadalasan nagkakasakit na mga tao, tapos masama din sa klima natin," said Edielyn Andaya, who commutes nearly four hours a day from her home in Quezon City to her office in Mandaluyong.

[Translation: You can't avoid air pollution from cars. The smoke makes people sick, and it's bad for our climate too.]

Eric Aspiras, meanwhile, is worried his constant exposure to air pollution will cause him trouble in the future.

"Mag-u-undergo ako ng medical sa agency namin. Nakakatakot na baka may sakit na pala ako at mawalan ako ng trabaho kapag hindi ako malusog," he said.

[Translation: I am about to undergo a medical exam for my work in an agency. It's scary to think I might be sick and lose my job because my health is poor.]

He said he often sees smoke belchers on the road, particularly old jeepneys and buses. The government should retire those vehicles, he stressed.

As for Myrna Timbol, she said she tries to stay inside the house as much as she can. When she goes out, she takes a taxi or wears a mask. Even her children and grandchildren wear masks, she said.

"May sakit na 'ko at matanda na 'ko. Hindi na 'ko pwede sa ganyang mausok," she said.

[Translation: I'm already sick and old. I can't expose myself to that much pollution anymore.]

Also read: Medical service provider says traffic endangers lives

Development leaders recognised that transport solutions to air pollution require much time and money.

But Gozun said it is more cost-efficient for governments to prevent lung and heart diseases now than to pay for the health care costs later on.

Besides, she pointed out, "We're already paying the price with our health and our quality of life. We have to be willing to invest in clean air."