As Asia sweats through a heatwave, experts say it’s not sunburn you need to worry about

As Asia sweats through a heatwave, experts say it’s not sunburn you need to worry about
  • PublishedMay 12, 2024

A record-breaking heatwave that swept through parts of Asia has killed dozens of people, shut schools and damaged crops.

In the Philippines, millions of students were instructed to remain at home for several days as the government cancelled in-person classes. Meanwhile, Cambodia is grappling with its highest temperatures in 170 years.

The record high temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius in some areas, posing a serious health threat, and although governments issued practical warnings about heat stroke, the risk of sunburn was not something officials were concerned about.

The reason why is that sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, not necessarily heat, and as Stuart Henderson, a UV expert from the Department of Health, explains, the air pollution in many Asian cities serves to create a barrier between the Sun and the ground.

“Most pollutants in the atmosphere … tend to be down fairly low, closer to ground,” Dr Henderson said.

“The more pollution or ozone or whatever … in the atmosphere, the higher the chance [the UV] will be scattered … or reflected or absorbed … before it arrives at where you are.”

Instead, people were urged to avoid outdoor activities and stay hydrated to avoid heat stroke.

When the body reaches a temperature above 41C, it begins to cook itself from the inside.

The result of the body trying to cool itself can be deadly, as the intestines leak toxins into the blood.

Ferry on the water in Bangkok.
Smog in polluted cities can absorb ultraviolet radiation.(ABC Asia: Sophie Johnson)

The dangers of pollution

Although pollution may help block UV rays, experts were quick to warn it comes with its own dangers.

Prawira Yudha Kombara and Sumaryati are part of the Atmospheric Chemistry and Air Quality Research Group in Bandung, Indonesia.

They’re concerned about how pollution can impact people’s health in cities such as Jakarta.

When chemical particles in smoggy air enter the respiratory system, they can have acute or severe health implications.

“In a big city, there are many cases of acute respiratory infection, but chronic impact takes a long time,” Sumaryati said.

“It’s actually more dangerous … than acute impact, for example, cancer, heart attack and hypertension.”

Two women walking down a street in Jakarta wearing masks.
Air pollution can cause a number of health problems.(AP Photo: Achmad Ibrahim)

Mr Kombara said the first step to cleaning the air quality — as well as reducing one of the main drivers of the heatwave, climate change — was to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

“Jakarta and several cities nowadays are planning and then developing [more] public transport to reduce the number of vehicles,” he said.

“[Some other solutions include] using a bicycle or walking to work.”

Drone shot revealing landscape of Kathmandu Valley.
Air quality improved in many areas during the COVID-19 lockdowns.(Reuters: Navesh Chitrakar)

Sumaryati said the COVID-19 lockdowns showed air quality could improve.

“We all applied to work from home, [and] these activities really helped make the air quality better,” she said.

“After the COVID pandemic, now, some offices still [let you] apply to work, [and] I think this policy can reduce air pollution.”


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