Malta’s air has more than double the number of pollutants recommended by World Health Authority (WHO) guidelines, according to a new report.

Last year, Malta recorded an average of 12 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre, according to the 2023 World Air Quality Report published on Tuesday by Swiss air quality technology company IQAir.

Fine particles include pollutants such as sulfates, black carbon, nitrates and ammonium and refer to those measuring just 2.5 millionths of a metre (PM2.5) — around one-fiftieth the width of a human hair.

Such microscopic particles, while small, can be hugely damaging to human health due to being easily absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream, leading to asthma, cancer, strokes and lung disease, and have been linked to car usage and construction, among other factors.

The concentration of fine particles in Malta was more than double the recommended WHO threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic metre and put the country in 49th place of the 134 countries included in the report, when listed from best to worst.

With a concentration of just 3.2, French Polynesia — a collection of over 100 French-owned islands in the South Pacific Ocean — had the best air quality in the world last year.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, was at the bottom of the list with a staggering 79.9 fine particles per cubic metre, almost 16 times the recommended level.

In Europe, Malta was roughly halfway down the table, coming in at 26th place when listed from best to worst. The country on the continent with the cleanest air was Iceland, which measured a PM2.5 reading of 4.

Bosnia Herzegovina, meanwhile, was last in Europe with a reading of 27.5, almost six times the WHO guidelines.

Malta was 26th in Europe when ranked best to worst. Graphic: IQAir.Malta was 26th in Europe when ranked best to worst. Graphic: IQAir.

Lack of progress

Malta’s results show the country has had little success improving its air quality over the last five years, with fine particle levels hovering at around the same levels since 2018, according to historical data on the IQAir website.

In 2022, Malta recorded an annual PM2.5 concentration of 11.7, while in 2021 it was even higher than last year at 13.5. From 2018 to 2020, it ranged from 9.4 to 11.

These results appear against a backdrop of rampant construction and increased car use in Malta, neither of which have seen sign of slowing down in the last five years.

In October, census data revealed the extent of the country’s construction boom, with the total number of dwellings ballooning from almost 224,000 in 2011 to a little over 297,000 in 2021 — a rise of a third and at a pace far exceeding the increase in population.

Construction has been linked to fine particles in the air and is a sector which has boomed in Malta. File photo: Matthew Mirabelli.Construction has been linked to fine particles in the air and is a sector which has boomed in Malta. File photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

And in June, Eurostat data showed how Malta had the highest increase in new building permits among EU states between 2021 and 2022, despite permits decreasing in most member countries.

Meanwhile, the number of cars in Malta has continued to ramp up over the years, now topping 420,000 with a daily increase of around 30 new cars being added to the roads each day.

National Statistics Office data (NSO) released last March showed this was equivalent to over 18,000 vehicles for each square kilometre of road in Malta and to 1,500 cars for every 1,000 people.

Global picture

Last year, only 10 out of the 134 countries listed met the WHO guidelines for concentrations of fine particles in the air.

“With only nine per cent of globally reporting cities achieving the WHO annual PM2.5 guideline, much more work remains to be done to combat air pollution,” the report said.

A view of the situation globally. Graphic: IQAirA view of the situation globally. Graphic: IQAir

Blaming petrol car use, construction, industry, coal burning and farming for creating fine particles, the report said that while such activities posed direct risks to human health, they were also leading to a vicious cycle by accelerating climate change — which also increases pollution.

Dust storms, wildfires and sandstorms are natural sources of harmful fine particles and are exacerbated by climate change as the global temperature increases.

“Projections indicate that climate change will exacerbate air quality issues, with extreme heat events becoming more severe and frequent,” the report said.

Last summer, Greece was ravaged by wildfires amid a sweltering continent-wide heat wave, sending plumes of black smoke containing high concentrations of deadly particles across Europe. The smoke was visible from Malta and was thought to be the likely cause of an unusual red-looking sun which dominated the country’s skyline.

The 2023 World Air Quality Report was created using data sourced from 30,000 air quality monitoring stations worldwide. In Malta, there are four such stations located in Għarb, Msida, Żejtun and St Paul’s Bay.

To see up-to-date air quality readings from these stations, visit the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) website.

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