A recent World Health Organisation study defined air pollution as the world’s “single biggest environmental health risk”. The report finds that air pollution has killed around seven million people, in both cities and rural areas, thus causing almost one in eight deaths in the world in 2012.

The statistics are abnormally and worryingly high for Malta. According to Eurostat, more than 40 per cent of the population in Malta complains about air quality compared to the European average of 15 per cent.

What is most aggravating is that even more than passive smoking, air pollution is not a lifestyle choice. A study on the effect of particle matters on the residents of Fgura and Zejtun, conducted by Martin Balzan and Jason Bonnici, describes air pollution as, “a ubiquitous involuntary environmental exposure, which can affect 100 per cent of the population, from womb to death”.

Indeed the link between air pollution and respiratory diseases is well recognised by many medical studies. In his paper entitled Lung Health and Outdoor Air Pollution, Joseph Cacciattolo, a professor and respiratory specialist, points out that polluted air is “a major factor in exacerbating existing respiratory diseases and may also be the potential cause of lung disorders”.

The most obvious and main symptom caused by exposure to polluted air is coughing. Children, the elderly and persons with pre-existing cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and diabetes mellitus appear to be at a greater risk to develop complications related to air pollution.

Air pollution is also strongly linked with asthma. It is a recognised cause for destabilising well-controlled asthma and for aggravating the condition, although there is no evidence that it may actually cause asthma. Those who suffer most are children as they are more susceptible to air pollution than adults, even, as Cacciattolo notes in his paper, when levels of pollution are relatively low and within ‘acceptable’ ranges.

Both traffic-related air pollution and high concentrations of ozone in the air increase the symptoms of asthma. “Admissions to hospital for control of asthma have been found to be more frequent on days following exposure to raised ambient ozone levels,” notes Cacciattolo, adding how predictably, the effects tend to be more pronounced during the warm season.

Causes of lung cancer in non-smokers have also been traced back to air pollution by several large epidemiological studies. “Persons who live in areas with high ambient air pollution are more likely to develop lung cancer than those who live in areas with cleaner air,” says Cacciattolo.

Bonnici lists a number of health outcomes for which there is at least some evidence of an association with air pollution. These include respiratory hospital admissions, cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency room visits for respiratory and cardiac problems, work and school absenteeism, chronic cardiovascular disease and low birth weight.

While traffic remains one of the main air pollutants, a recent study has shown that fireworks are contributing greatly to seriously deteriorating the air quality in Malta.

Studies conducted by chemical expert Alfred Vella’s research group at the University of Malta in 2010 concluded that: “Firework displays are contributing significantly to the dust load and composition in Malta. PM10 (atmospheric particulate matter) is an air quality issue where EU limit values are frequently exceeded.” The paper goes on to note how while other priority pollutants have been brought under control, the airborne dust situation is not improving. So, during the summer-long festa season, fireworks are creating a significant negative effect on air quality.

Speaking to the Times of Malta recently, Vella voiced concern that despite new regulations, the amount of the “nasty chemical” potassium percholate, which is present in the resulting dust from fireworks, remains uncontrolled. The toxic substances that the fireworks let off are known to be a health concern, especially to pregnant women, foetuses and infants, and can contaminate food and water.

Government has committed itself to address air quality issues in its electoral manifesto. Speaking to Times of Malta, Environment Minister Leo Brincat said the government did not mince its words that air quality is also about human health. It was also aware that the public is particularly sensitive to air quality issues.

He underlined plans to shut down the Marsa power plant – which is in breach of EU rules – and to change Malta’s power supply to natural gas.

Brincat acknowledged that this was not enough and that much more was needed to be done on other aspects related to air pollution. This included tackling white dust from the construction industry and, perhaps most of all, emissions from vehicles on our roads.

Tackling road emissions is a priority and the Environment Ministry liaises regularly with the transport sector in this regard. Just a few months into this legislature the ministry exchanged delegations with the German environment ministry on air quality, in parallel with the continuous feedback from local expertise. More recently, Brincat said, the ministry also committed itself to draw up an action plan on preventing air pollution.

“We are convinced that once the Environment and Resources Authority is finally in place, we shall be in a much better position to enhance our air-monitoring capabilities. This apart from the good work put in by the regulator, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, which to date does not fall under our remit.”