New Research: Widespread Knowledge Gaps on Air Pollution May Hamper Effective Action
(New York, USA and Singapore) — Air pollution causes more than 1.5 million deaths each year in South and Southeast Asia, but news and social media from a three-year period show poor public understanding of its major causes and the most promising solutions, concludes “Hazy Perceptions,” a new study from global health organization Vital Strategies.
“Public demand for good air quality is essential, but our report demonstrates that demand may be focused on the wrong interventions,” said Daniel Kass, Senior Vice President for Environmental Health at Vital Strategies. “It is critical that governments adopt clean air policies and that industries reduce emissions. ‘Hazy Perceptions’ can help us understand how to ensure citizens know more about the risks of chronic air pollution and the main culprits causing it, so people can push for the right kind of change. The analysis provided by this report also establishes an important baseline for measuring progress.”
The report used innovative research methods to collect and analyze more than a half-million pieces of news and social media in 11 countries from 2015 to 2018, revealing alarming public misconceptions about air pollution:
Public understanding of the long-term health consequences of poor air quality is low. News and social media posts largely mention short-term health impacts such as coughing or itchy eyes, far more than health threats caused by chronic exposure, such as cancer.
Health authorities are not among the most influential sources of information. Influencers on air pollution discourse are diverse and vary from year to year, but the analysis did not identify public health authorities among leading influencers.
Public discourse does not center on the most important drivers of air pollution. The most important sources of pollutants, such as household fuels, power plants and waste burning, draw less public concern than sources such as vehicular emissions.
Public discussions tend to focus on short-term remedies. Conversations about short-term personal protection such as wearing face masks are much more common than ones on long-term solutions such as bans on trash burning.
Conversation is driven by seasonal variations in air quality. Air pollution is most frequently discussed from September through December, when air quality is worsened by the winter season and crop burning practices adopted by farmers. This poses a challenge for engaging the public to support effective air pollution control, which requires year-round, sustained measures.
Emotionally appealing content generates the highest level of engagement. Social media posts and news articles on air pollution that mention children’s health or climate change produce more engagement than others.
“There is a dire need to look at long-term, practical and effective solutions to the issue of air pollution. This has led us to work on a ‘Grand Design’ for air quality improvement in Jakarta,” said Oswar M. Mungkasa, Deputy Governor DKI Jakarta Provincial in Spatial Planning and Environment. “The findings in this report provide tremendous insight on public and media understanding on air pollution. We intend to use these insights to inform our strategic communication on the Grand Design.”
The recommendations in “Hazy Perceptions” are based on analysis of more than a half-million pieces of news and social media content for three years, from 2015 to 2018, in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia and Pakistan. The report recommends evidence-based communication campaigns to highlight the most significant sources of air pollution and to address the health harms of long-term exposure. Another critical step is ensuring that media professionals and key advocates for clean air are informed about credible data on the sources of air pollution, its health impact, and solutions.
“Data is the bedrock of impactful public policy,” said Ailun Yang, Head of Global Coal and Air Pollution at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “The crucial, data-driven insights provided by Vital Strategies will help us more effectively engage the public and policymakers on the issue of air pollution, one of today’s leading health concerns. Because of this collective effort, we will be able to better act on the knowledge and work to create a cleaner, healthier environment.”
Air pollution is a leading public health threat, contributing to lung and heart disease, cancer, diabetes and cognitive impairment. According to the World Health Organization, more than 4 million people die every year globally from exposure to outdoor air pollution, with nearly 40 percent of these deaths occurring in South and Southeast Asia.
For more information about Vital Strategies’ work on environmental health, visit vitalstrategies.org/programs/environmental-health.
About Vital Strategies
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.