To learn how air pollution is specifically affecting women and other vulnerable groups, more Indonesia-based research is needed, experts say.

Air pollution poses a danger to everyone, and yet little is known about how it affects women specifically.

As epidemiologist and environmental health professor Budi Haryanto explains, once an air pollution particle is inhaled, it travels through the respiratory system and into the lungs. This affects all humans regardless of gender or age.

“Every human’s respiratory organs are polluted by air pollution,” he said. This is true for both men and women, and pollutants can quickly spread to other organs through the nose. Therefore, the health effects of air pollution on the respiratory organs are similar for all genders and ages.

A look at gender disparity

Particulate matter (PM) is composed of fine particles in the air that measure less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers or one-third the diameter of a human hair.

Exposure to PM 2.5, “including toxic metals, organic compounds, and gases, can cause inflammation with systemic effects, affecting respiratory organs and those located far from the lungs, including reproductive organs,” according to the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies.

However, as Haryanto pointed out, the exact nature of this “exposure” requires more research. And given that the particles enter through the nose, Haryanto raised the issue of a “relatively small number of gender-based research related to air pollution health effects in Indonesia.”

Haryanto described the term “relative” because “the amount of research cannot be measured quantitatively. But imagine this: when I want to look up research sources on pollution, it’s rare to find studies that specifically focus on men or women.”

Bondan Andriyanu, Greenpeace Indonesia’s climate and energy campaigner, concurred with Haryanto’s statement. He said that he had never come across research on gender-based air pollution impacts in Indonesia. “I read such abroad-based research on the subject. But not Indonesian-based research.”

Bondan claims to be more competent in research focused on women. He noted that “women’s organs are more complex than men’s. Of course, air pollution on women would have bigger impacts than men.”

Haryanto agreed it was “difficult to find gender-based research of this kind.” He was fortunate to have assisted his students who listed women as their research subjects. Her name is Eky Pramitha Dwi Putri.

WHO Air Quality Index chart JG

A clue

Putri’s research, guided by Haryanto, found a significant association between air pollution and decreased lung function in adult women. This was around the Pulo Gadung industrial area in North Jakarta.

She discovered that 31.2 percent of 109 adult women experienced decreased lung function, while the rest had stable lung function.

Interestingly, the analysis showed no significant correlation between age or length of time lived in the area and decreased lung function. Still, a significant relationship was found between the length of time spent indoors and reduced lung function.

Female adults who spend more time at home around the Pulo Gadung industrial area “have a 3.56 times increased risk of decreasing lung function compared to female adults who spend less time at home,” Eky wrote in her thesis.

Putri’s research highlights the importance of studying lung function in relation to air pollution impact, particularly on women.

This is because exposure to particulate matter, toxic metals, organic compounds, and gases can cause inflammation with systemic effects affecting the respiratory organs and those located far from the lungs, including the reproductive organs.

According to data provided by AirNow, a US government-supported service that monitors air quality, air quality in Central Jakarta, south of North Jakarta, frequently reaches unhealthy levels between August and September. AirNow does not have sensors installed in North Jakarta to provide data on air quality in that area.

AQI in Central Jakarta June 2022 by JG

A not-so-silent killer?

Air pollution particles settle in the lungs, which is crucial for proper breathing as they facilitate air exchange. “All air pollution particles stop in the lungs of humans,” said Haryanto.

Individuals’ metabolic level determines whether their lung function remains or decreases after exposure to air pollution particles.

Children are at a higher risk of inhaling air pollution particles due to their faster breathing frequency. However, there is a lack of research on air pollution’s impact on children’s lungs. Similarly, there is also a lack of research examining the effects of air pollution on adult men or women’s lungs.

Exposure to air pollution is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, the second most common cancer worldwide and the most common cancer in men.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, lung cancer is the second most common cancer globally and the most common cancer in men. It is also the second most common cancer in women.

However, it is not clear from international literature how exposure to air pollution ultimately causes human cancer.

Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that outdoor air pollution causes roughly 1 in 10 lung cancer cases, but this should be kept in perspective. Nearly 30 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer cases are associated with air pollution, more evident in major cities.

Recent evidence also suggests that exposure to air pollution may increase breast cancer risk in women, but previous studies on this topic are inconsistent.

In Indonesia, research and researchers specializing in air pollution’s impact on women are relatively few. “We have not yet reached the ‘inconsistency’ stage,” Hariyanto said.

He also noted that the country’s rapid growth has led to an increase in pollutants and shifting sources of pollution in big cities. This can harm human health, especially to women. 

During the interview at his home in Pasar Minggu, Jakarta, Haryanto looked at a painting of mountains and tall trees behind him. He remarked, “Breathing in a big city like Jakarta is very different from breathing in a place like this painting.”

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network through the Clean Air Catalyst program, a flagship program launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by a global partnership of organizations including the World Resources Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, and Internews.

This story was first published in Jakarta Globe on 20 February 2023.

About the writer

Anastasia Ika

Anastasia Ika is a researcher-writer based in West Java, Indonesia. Ika tarted working as a print media journalist in 2009 and she loves to write human-nature interaction stories. She is now working as...

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