Travel involves a complex interaction between the traveler, the traveling process, and the travel destination. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92% of the world’s population lives in regions that do not meet the organization’s air quality guidelines. What’s more, air pollution levels keep rising by the day in many of the world’s largest cities. This affects public health and causes an estimated 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year.
International tourist arrivals are anticipated to grow by 3.3% per year worldwide reaching 1.8 billion by 2030. While travel to Europe remains popular, Africa and Asia are increasingly becoming popular destinations for tourists. This growing number of tourists affects the number of travel-related health risks making their health and well-being a major travel concern.
Areas With The Highest Pollution Levels
The highest levels of pollution are often recorded in low- and middle-income countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia regions as well as the Western Pacific Region. These areas have their annual mean levels exceeding those of WHO guidelines by 5 to 10 times. Megacities in Asia such as Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Dhaka are among the most polluted cities in the world in terms of annual mean particulate matter concentrations.
Holidaymakers in these areas are, therefore, at a higher risk of being exposed to high levels of air pollution.
Health Effects of Air Pollution During Travel
Travelling exposes tourists to many risks and the many adverse health effects that air pollution can cause. Holidaymakers who travel unprepared in polluted cities may lack the necessary precautionary measures, adaptation, or advice on how to minimize the health risks associated with air pollution.
The sudden exposure to air pollution, particularly highly polluted megacities, can have adverse effects on the cardiopulmonary system (you can check out pollution levels of different cities across the world at dealchecker). Travelers with respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), blepharitis, and coronary heart disease may experience exacerbations in symptoms when exposed to air pollution. This is due to the increased inflammation of the airway which is provoked by exposure to pollutant antigens. Additionally, inhaling particulate matter and other combustive pollutants can exacerbate the symptoms of respiratory and cardiac diseases like cough and dyspnoea further compromising the functioning of the pulmonary.
Major Sources Of Pollutants
Pollutants that can cause health concerns in travelers are:
- Particulate matter (PM) – is a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. These particles may include dirt, dust, smoke, soot, and liquid droplets. Some particulate matter is large enough to see with the naked eye while others are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope.
Breathing in particulates can be harmful to a traveler’s health. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, brain, and bloodstreams causing health problems such as irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) – inhaling air with a high concentration of CO reduces the amount of oxygen transported to critical body organs such as the brain and heart. Health effects of high CO levels in the blood cause impaired reaction timing, nausea, headaches, coma, lightheadedness, weakness, and clouding of consciousness.
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 can cause irritation and inflammation of the airways leading to respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and difficulty in breathing. Exposures over long periods can reduce lung function and increased asthma attacks.
In combination, these air pollutants pose a huge risk to the health of travelers and may aggravate pre-existing medical conditions.
Tips for managing exposure to air pollution
While air pollution is unavoidable, there are a few things travelers can do to minimize their exposure:
- Before you travel, check with your doctor, especially if you have a respiratory condition, to ensure that it is safe to travel to a particular destination. Your health practitioner will also help determine whether you need a face mask, inhaler, or other medication.
- Stay up to date with local advisories on air quality. No one source provides an extensive list of air quality conditions around the world but you can check Country Health Advice database for the most recent air pollution levels, Dealchecker and The World Air Quality Index Project for real-time air quality monitoring.
- For those who wear contact lenses, beware of eye irritation that may be caused by ozone and heavy dust. In case of eye irritation, wash gently with plenty of water, use lubricating eye drops, or consider using glasses on heavily polluted days.
- For older travelers, getting a physical exam that includes lung capacity test and stress before traveling is a good idea.
- Avoid traveling with newborns and young children to areas with low air quality.
- Reduce the amount of time spent in areas with poor air quality.