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The Air That We Breathe In Indonesia


That’s the number of breaths that we take every single day on average, around 11,000 liters of air inhaled and exhaled. The element that we generally think about when breathing is oxygen - but did you know that each of our breaths contains just 21% of oxygen? Around 79% is nitrogen, 0.04% carbon dioxide and the rest are other gases. Except if the air is polluted, then it has other elements in it.

So, what is air pollution?

There are other elements that end up in the air that we breathe. Generally, we should be splitting them into Gases and Particles. This is because the risk to health of each can be different.

The key gases that the World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted as being dangerous to human health include - Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Dioxide.

The WHO also states that Particulate Matter is especially dangerous to human health, more specifically PM2.5. At just 2.5 microns wide, they are particles smaller than a human hair and visible only through an electron microscope. We’ll get back to PM2.5 in the next section, so let’s chat about what are acceptable levels of pollutants in the air and where they come from.

In 2021, the WHO revised their recommendations for yearly exposure to PM2.5 drastically downwardsfrom 10 ug/m3 to 5 ug/m3. This means that each year we should, on average, be breathing no more than 5 ug/m3.

How does that compare to the air quality in Indonesia? Let’s take a look at some charts:

As you can see, in 2021 the average PM2.5 yearly exposure in Jabodetabek was between 36 ug/m3 and 49 ug/m3. Breaking down even further, places like Serpong and Bintaro were recording PM2.5 levels over 10 times the WHO guideline - 56 ug/m3 and 57 ug/m3 respectively.

Until now, air pollution was primarily labelled a Jakarta problem. The data from Nafas, a pollution monitoring system, from January to July 2022 proves otherwise.

For the first 7 months of the year, air pollution in Bandung averaged at 40 ug/m3, Yogyakarta at 36 ug/m3 and Surabaya at 32 ug/m3. All of these are still far above the WHO Guideline.So it is not just Jakarta that is suffering. It is all the major cities.

So where does this pollution come from?

The concentration of PM2.5 pollution in any given area depends on two things:

  1. What are the hyperlocal sources?

  2. What are the geographical and meteorological features in this area?

The breakdown of air pollution sources by area can be very different, but in general they fall into one of the following categories:

  • Man-made

    • Agricultural crop burning

    • Factories & heavy industries

    • Transportation & logistics

    • Energy generation

    • Small & medium businesses

    • Waste burning - industrial & small scale

  • Natural

    • Forest Fires,

    • Volcanoes,

    • Dust Storms

As some of these sources are seasonal (i.e. agricultural burning), the pollution concentrations may vary throughout the year.

Geography and meteorology both influence how concentrated PM2.5 can get. Bandung, for example, is surrounded by mountains which means that PM2.5 pollution frequently gets trapped.

The seasons also play a role in pollution levels - during the dry season the amount of wind and rain is significantly lower, causing “stale air” and higher concentrations of PM2.5. In the rainy season, the opposite can happen - although it is wind, not rain that has the larger impact.

Three not-so-fun facts about PM2.5 air pollution

Not So Fun Fact #1: Trees Don’t Reduce PM2.5

Nafas sensors located in places with large “green” areas have shown that trees don’t significantly reduce PM2.5 pollution. A study from the US EPA showed that PM2.5 removal by trees can only be up to 0.24%, quite insignificant.

Not So Fun Fact #2: PM2.5 Pollution Can Travel 1,000s of km.

Sources of air pollution do not need to be in our neighborhood for it to have an impact. Some of the reasons why “Green” areas have heightened pollution levels may be due to “Transboundary Pollution” - coming in from other sources.

For example, many studies have shown that PM2.5 pollution from forest fires, coal power plants, factories and agricultural burning have enshrouded large cities with thick smoke.

Not So Fun Fact #3: Pollution Can Be Worst In The Morning

Due to the way our atmosphere behaves, air pollution levels generally follow a trendline that looks like this:

The way the surface of our planet heats up and cools has an impact on the planetary boundary layer, the first layer within our atmosphere which expands and contracts, having a direct impact on concentrations of PM2.5

On average in cities with high PM2.5 levels, Nafas has seen that air pollution can be worse in the morning - a big health hazard for those who like to exercise.

So what can we do about this seemingly impossible challenge: how to find somewhere to live that does not have these hidden hazards in the air we breathe? Well first you need to log on to and check what the current levels of pollution are in the areas you live work and play. Then you have to decide if that is something you can tolerate. If not there are only two solutions: one, move to an unpolluted area. Or two install air filters in your house and office to at least get some relief while you work and sleep. For more information please contact:

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