World Energy Outlook Special Report 2016: Energy and Air Pollution


Energy production and consumption is the main culprit of increasing air pollution, but technology also has the capacity to reduce it. In fact, 85% of particulate matter and almost all nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides are the result of unregulated, poorly regulated or inefficient fuel combustion energy production and use. For this reason, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published in June the 2016 World Energy Outlook devoted to Energy and Air Pollution.

The report highlights the link between energy, air pollution and health that causes 6.5 million deaths every year causing a public health crisis. The IEA also acknowledges the responsibility of energy production and consumption in our air pollution whilst signalling that the energy sector has the technology to decrease air pollution.

Three pollutants: particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide exert the greatest health impact on us and they are largely man-made created through the production or use of energy.

On one side, 2.7 billion people cook with wood and other solid fuels, mostly in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This burning of biomass accounts for more than 50% of particulate matter emissions, substantially indoor pollution.

On the other side, power plants, industrial facilities and transport are the main cause of air pollution linked to 3 million deaths per year. While coal and oil have powered economic growth in many countries, coal is responsible for 60% of sulphur dioxide emissions and transport fuels generate 50% of nitrogen oxide.

However, this situation has the potential to substantially change. The report explains that by 2040 it is expected that energy demand will rise by one third with a 7% fall in emission of particulate matter, a 20% decline of sulphur dioxide and a 10% decline in nitrogen dioxide. How can this be? Mostly thanks to increasing implementation of air pollution control technologies and a global transition to cleaner energies that are already developed and up and running in some countries.

The IEA proposes a Clean Air Scenario that reconciles the need for energy and the need for clean air and will only require a 7% increase in energy investment. The technologies to make this a reality exist and are in use, but need to be scaled to meet the demand of many more countries. The Clean Air Scenario calls for a concerted effort to deal with energy poverty in developing countries; to reduce pollutant emissions through post-combustion control technologies; and to avoid emissions completely by promoting clean energy across the world.


The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous agency that has been working for more than 40 years to promote energy security among its members and among its objectives is to promote sustainable energy policies that spur economic growth and environmental protection to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
The full report can be downloaded from:


What Is It That We All Call Pollution?


Air pollution is becoming more and more present in the news, in casual conversations, in the promotion of products and in many more instances. However, are we all talking about the same thing? What exactly is it that we all call ‘air pollution’?

Air pollution is a mix of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe which is harmful to our health, it can be any physical, chemical or biological agent that modifies the natural atmosphere. Most sources of air pollution are man-made from mobile sources such as fuel powered motor vehicles; and stationary sources such as factories, refineries, power plants and forest fires. There are also other indoor sources such as building materials and cleaning products. Air pollution, as we now know is present both outdoor and indoor.

Outdoor air pollution:

  • Fine particles (burning of fossil fuels in energy production, coal and petroleum used in vehicles)
  • Gases (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, chemical vapours and others)
  • Ground-level ozone (smog)



Indoor air pollution:

  • Gases emanating from:
    • Household products and chemicals, or
    • Building materials such as paint, wood, furniture (asbestos, formaldehyde, lead etc)
  • Allergens such as coackroaches, mold, pollen

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005 issued the ‘WHO Air Quality Guidelines’ to offer guidance and limits for the most worrying air pollutants because of their threat to human health, their widespread presence in urban areas and their relevance as precursors for other toxic components: particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). (3,5)

“These new guidelines have been established after a worldwide consultation with more than 80 leading scientists and are based on review of thousands of recent studies from all regions of the world. As such, they present the most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced…” said Dr Roberto Bertollini, Director of the Special Programme for Health and Environment of WHO’s Regional Office for Europe when the guidelines were released in 2005. (4)


Particulate Matter

Is a mix of solid and liquid (organic or inorganic) particles suspended in the air. It is the pollutant that affects most people and is generally composed by sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.

Ozone (O3)

Ground-level Ozone is a major component of smog, formed by the reaction of sunlight with nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

NO2 is mostly the result of emissions during the combustion process (power generation, heating and engines). It is in fact, a source of nitrate aerosols that form PM2.5.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)

SO2 is produced from fossil fuel burning for domestic use, power generation or motor vehicles

Other components generally referred to when talking about air pollution are carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which has greater relevance when talking about indoor air pollution, although also present outdoors.

VOCs are a collection of toxic gases from solids or liquids, that are found in higher concentrations indoors (up to ten times higher). Thousands of products used indoors as construction materials, paints, varnishes, cleaning agents, activities like cooking and many more, are the source of VOCs while being used and while stored. (6) Safe levels / guidelines for exposure to VOCs are not known,, but common sense rules are that they should be kept at low levels to avoid or reduce their negative health effects, which have been well documented.

CO and CO2 are not considered as VOCs. They are both odorless, tasteless and harmful to human health but have clear differences – CO2 occurs naturally in the atmosphere and we can tolerate it in small amounts, whereas CO can cause problems even in low concentrations and is flammable.

If you have concerns about the air quality you breathe, understand what air pollution refers to and which of the key toxic components should be measured.

Let’s understand what it means when we talk about air pollution and we discuss about toxic components.





  • PM5
    10 μg/m3 annual mean
    25 μg/m3 24-hour mean
  • PM10
    20 μg/m3 annual mean
    50 μg/m3 24-hour mean
  • NO2
    40 μg/m3 annual mean
    200 μg/m3 1-hour mean
  • SO2
    20 μg/m3 24-hour mean
    500 μg/m3 10-minute mean
  • O3
    100 μg/m3 8-hour mean 

    WHO issued these guidelines as a global standard for environmental quality. Each country can adopt the guideline at its maximum standard or take interim standards that better reflect their national balance between health risks, economic decisions, technological capacities and other political and social factors. (7)


@bluebymeo uses the US EPA AQI standards for ease of readability.

For full information on this is here:




ASTHMATIC? Air pollution might be making it worse


Today, 235 million people across the world suffer from asthma. Indoor and outdoor pollution can trigger asthma attacks and make symptoms worse.

It is well documented that air pollution can trigger asthmatic reactions in people who are already diagnosed with asthma. The role of air pollution in people developing asthma is less understood. Nonetheless, research funded by the US Air Resources Board has shown that children living in communities with higher ozone levels and/or living closer to busy roads are more likely to develop asthma (1).



a chronic disease of the lungs. The airways narrow, swell and produce more mucus. Which makes breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.




Asthma is rarely fatal but causes sleepless nights, fatigue, reduced physical capacity as well as school and work absenteeism (2). The use of medication is important, but management of asthma triggers is essential to deal with this chronic disease (2) and to enjoy a good quality of life and overcome the economic burden.

Indoor and outdoor air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and make symptoms worse because air pollution irritates the lungs and airways. Exposure to long-term air pollution in high concentrations can trigger asthma in both children and adults (3). A research study showed that people with moderate to severe asthma were 40% more likely to have an acute asthma episode on high pollution days (1). Moreover, research suggests that if your exposure happens during pregnancy your baby could be more likely to develop asthma because particulates can cross through the placenta to the developing baby (3). According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) asthma is primarily affected by ozone (smog) and particle pollution (haze, dust or smoke).

Ozone is a gas and contributes to ‘smog’, mostly present in urban areas where there are more cars and in the summer when sunlight increases. Ozone triggers asthma, it irritates the lungs and airways and reduces their function making it more difficult for a person to breathe deeply. It has been directly related to increased asthma attacks, increased asthma related emergencies and increased need for asthma treatment (4). Small particles are emitted into the air from industrial activity and energy production and can reduce lung function and increase asthma attacks. Moreover, 60% of people with asthma have allergic asthma, which means that allergens such as dust, pollen and pets can  trigger inflammation of the airways and create an asthma attack (4). As a result of increased exposure to pollution, your airways can be more sensitive to allergens.

In Asia, it is estimated that less than 5% of adults suffer from asthma; and data about elderly asthma is not homogenous across the region, it ranges between 1.3 and 15.3% (5). A recent literature review on this subject showed that asthma was increasing with age in Asia, particularly in Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Iran, India and Bangladesh (5).

Controlling asthma as well as the triggers that cause it to arise or get worse is important to lead a good quality life and also to reduce its economic burden. Asthma has direct costs in inhalers and medications and has indirect costs from the negative impact of productivity which can be as large as the direct costs. In addition, research showed asthma affects not only work absenteeism but also “presenteeism” (individual loss of function when at work)(6). A study in the US in 2007 estimated that the total cost of asthma to society was USD 56 billion (USD3,259 per person). A separate research in Asia-Pacific estimated that indirect and direct costs ranged from USD184 in Vietnam to USD1,189 in Hong Kong (6).



 Simple tips to know if air pollution is triggering    your asthma attacks:

  • Keep a symptom diary and note daily activities and pollution levels. This will help you see patterns of symptoms linked to pollution levels.

  • When pollution is high and even 24h after you might notice:

    • Increased sensitivity to other asthma triggers,  

    • Symptoms are worse and harder to control,

    • You are using your inhaler more.


Some tips on how to reduce asthma attacks triggered by pollution:


  • Know when and where pollution is bad and plan outdoor activities when or where pollution levels are lower.

  • Limit outside activities and outdoor physical exercise on high pollution days or in high pollution areas.

  • If you do go out, do it earlier in the day before pollution kicks in and stick to back streets, with less traffic.

  • Ensure your indoor air is clean and is not contaminated by outdoor air pollution. Avoid rush hours so that the quality of the air in your car can easily be controlled.

  • Avoid the smoke from barbecues and bonfires.

  • Note that the use of face masks may not make a difference to your asthma symptoms and can actually make breathing feel more difficult.