For the first time, epidemiologists and researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) have partnered with the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to measure and assess air pollution and its association with respiratory diseases, birth conditions and premature death.
As part of the global Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) project, with the satellite due to be launched by NASA in 2022, the project would assess the human health effects of fine particulate matter of a diameter of 2.5mm, known as PM2.5 and its chemical composition.
This is the first time that NASA has partnered with epidemiologists and health organisations to use space-based data to study human health and improve lives, said head of the environmental and occupational sciences division at UP’s school of health systems and public health, Professor Janine Wichmann.
Wichmann, who is also the local principal investigator of epidemiology research for the MAIA project, said she would be investigating human health effects due to air pollution and climate change indicators.
“Particulate matter in the air includes many chemical species that might be toxic. The degree to which they contribute to human health effects, such as respiratory disease, also varies. This requires us to know which specific air pollutants, combination of pollutants, sources of pollutants and characteristics of pollutants are most responsible for our ill health, such as adverse birth conditions, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and premature death.”
Studies have shown that maternal exposure to severe air pollution was associated with adverse birth outcomes, such as restricted intrauterine growth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight. Short-term exposure on a daily-to-monthly basis was associated with respiratory diseases such as asthma and premature death. Chronic exposure over many years lead to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, she said.
Several study sites around the world form part of the project, with four sites being in Africa, namely South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia.
According to NASA, the MAIA satellite will generate comprehensive information on particle size distribution, shape and light scattering, as well as absorption for a set of globally distributed target areas.
“By understanding what’s in the air we breathe and just how toxic it could be, we can make decisions to establish global standards for our air quality and develop strategies to control air pollution with a targeted approach,” said Wichmann.
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