The air we breathe

January 18, 2021

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

By Ievgen Kylymnyk, Andreas Sandberg and Victoria Yashkina, UNDP Ukraine

For breath is life, so if you breathe well you will live long on earth.

      – Sanskrit Proverb

Air pollution is one of the three environmental problems Ukrainians are most concerned about, coming third after water pollution and deforestation.

Ukrainians have access to more and more networks and applications with information on the air quality index and the level of pollution – among them SaveEcoBot, EcoCity and others. Such platforms combine the data from official sources, meteorological data and largely rely on citizen-owned sensors. Having a snapshot of air quality is especially important for people with a predisposition to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and for other vulnerable groups, for whom air quality information should be as accessible as data from a thermometer outside a window. Everyone's health depends on air quality.

Daria Ozerna, a biologist and science journalist, said the level of air pollution often determines whether children and adults spend time outdoors, training, playing and walking. “Physical activity is a component of almost all aspects of health, and it depends in part on air quality," she said. “Air pollution can also adversely affect the course of coronavirus disease.”

An interdisciplinary team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the ETH Zürich spin-off Meteodat recently investigated possible interactions between acutely elevated levels of fine particulate matter and the virulence of the coronavirus disease. They discovered acute concentrations of fine particles, especially those smaller than 2.5 micrometers, cause inflammation of the respiratory, pulmonary and cardiovascular tracts and thicken the blood. “In combination with a viral infection, these inflammatory factors can lead to a serious progression of the disease,” says Mario Rohrer, researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE and director of Meteodat.

Air pollution is a complex phenomenon, hazardous particles and molecules appear in the air we breathe from many sources: cars, industry, fires, natural factors – it is affected by the temperature, humidity and wind. But there are six pollutants that are being closely monitored globally due to their adverse impact on health and man-made nature.

Source: European Environment Agency

Expanding the evidence base for air quality policy

To create effective and efficient policies and hold polluters accountable, we need to rely on air quality data. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian public network of air pollution sensors is not producing enough, and its expansion is growing too slowly. For example, in 2020 only two stations were added to the network of European Environmental Agency sensors. Citizen-led projects are promising, but they have yet to cover the whole of Ukraine and far too often experts put the reliability of the measurements they produce in doubt.

But there it another possible solution, which, if combined with local data can create sound evidence base for national policies in the area – using open satellite data could be an opportunity for an impartial and near-real time awareness of the situation on the ground.

In the end of 2020, UNDP Ukraine and UNDP Moldova have partnered with the European Space Agency and their programme EO Clinic to test the applicability of satellite data to understand air pollution, how it changed during COVID lockdowns and which regions are most vulnerable.

We investigated pollution levels for the six main pollutants (NO2, SO2, O3, CO, PM10 and PM2.5) for the whole territory of Ukraine, the biggest Ukrainian cities and for industry-intensive regions. The analysts from Everis and World from Space have used satellite data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5p and Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) to visualize air pollution and the distribution of pollutant gases and to find patterns throughout the territory (see full report here: COVID-19 Impact on Air Quality in Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova). We have focused our analysis on the last three years (May 2018 – July 2020) and specifically on the impact of the COVID-19 spring lock down period (March-May 2020). what did we find?

Satellite data helps identify and verify pollution hotspots

The “usual suspects” standout on all visualizations. We can visually identify hotspots in Dnipro, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Kyiv, Mariupol, and Zaporizhzhya. These cities are known for their heavy industry and poor air quality and thus appear in the negative air quality rankings each year. We have also tried to track down the biggest polluters (as per official state statistics) and have found that their geolocation largely corresponds with NO2 hotspots. In some cases the visualization shows that such emitters have a more significant impact than other sources of pollution in each particular region.

Particulate matter – the far-reaching dust we breath

At the national level, the average annual concentration of PM2.5 of 10 μg/m3 was reached or exceeded in 16 out of 36 months we monitored. The cities with the highest concentration of PM10 are usually Kryvyi Rih, where the value was exceeded more than 200 times during the study period, and Mariupol, where the value was exceeded more than 400 times. The animation below shows how far can the dust be taken by wind from the source of origin.

Seasons of pollution

During the cold season, people with heart or lung disease have a higher risk of complications. In winter on the territory of Ukraine, there is almost a tenfold increase in the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide compared to the summer period. This can be explained by reduced precipitation and almost no vegetation.

Carbon monoxide emissions are highest in April, and this can probably be explained by the active burning of dry vegetation in rural areas. A small increase in carbon monoxide concentrations is also observed each year in September.

The most dangerous situation is with the concentration of fine particles PM2.5 and PM10. Higher concentrations are observed in the spring and autumn months, which may lead to a 15% increase in mortality. (Note: IT and AQG – are measures set by WHO to trigger policy action once the level is passed)

If you are curious to explore how your rayon compares to others you can explore this data viz.

Tracking the ups and downs of air pollution

We compared how the concentration of pollutants differs during the week and by day in the largest cities of the country - Dnipro, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Kyiv, Lviv, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Odesa and Zaporizhzhya.

Friday is characterized by a surge in pollutant concentrations for practically all cities except Mariupol, where the peak of pollution occurs on Thursday. We also have an outlier – Dnipro (see the yellow line below), where the sulphur dioxide emission curve during the day is completely different from other cities: emissions peak observed between 09:00 and 13:00.

Air pollution and the pandemic: has it become easier to breathe?

Quarantine has indeed had an impact on air quality in cities. This was especially noticeable for the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide in large cities and industrial zones - Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, Dnipro and Kharkiv regions. A significant decrease in carbon monoxide concentrations occurred over Mariupol. In the largest industrial regions, the average daily concentration of PM2.5 also decreased significantly. If in 2018 and 2019 a significant part of the country had indicators of PM2.5 pollution higher than the WHO guidance, then in 2020 there was a significant reduction. The same applies to PM10 pollution, although the decline in concentrations was noticeable in 2019, and to a large extent in 2020.

Satellite data: a short cut on the path to air quality monitoring systems?

Satellite data is will not substitute ground level measurements, there are few limitations satellites have (at least the fact that they are hundreds of kilometres away) that do not guarantee forensic precision, but they are globally used as a supporting or proxy data. For instance, in the EU, satellite data serve as an additional source of information on air quality, helping to track pollution sources and respond accordingly. Satellites can also provide access to air quality information where no on-ground monitoring posts are available.

The use-case for satellite data above provides a valuable insight on what kind of evidence could be generated. But how can this be applied to support national policymaking and improved air quality? We would need a coalition of professionals to properly address that question, but here we have a few ideas we would like to test:

1. How might we use this data to verify citizen generated air quality data?

Citizen led air pollution monitoring projects are often criticized for not having consistent, stable, equally dense and controlled measurement network, hence are called “unreliable”. While the argument has valid grounds, it is not wise to discard the data, instead we should see opportunity to support them. Maybe the satellite data is the proxy that could build more trust to the evidence they create?

2. How might we support national SDG monitoring framework with satellite data?

Ukraine has joined 193 other countries to adopt Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as its guiding framework to end all forms of poverty, build a life of dignity for all and leaving no one behind. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree in September 2019 to ensure compliance with 17 goals of sustainable development of Ukraine for the period until 2030.

SDG11 includes an indicator on air pollution (11.5) that could be measured using satellite data. It might become an additional source of evidence for the assessment or help to increase confidence in local measurements. 

The European Union has issued legislation promoting good air quality and puts in place effective mechanisms for monitoring quality and controlling air pollution. At the heart of this legislation is the Directive on Air Quality and Clean Air for Europe, which Ukraine has committed to transpose into its legislation under the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Implementation of European air quality legislation includes the establishment of air quality standards, the introduction of air quality monitoring and collection systems, the creation of a network of automatic quality control stations and many other mechanisms that will ensure better air quality and reduce the negative impact of polluted air on health and people's lives.

In Ukraine today, the deployment of the state air monitoring system is just beginning, and this should become the basis of the new approach to air quality management. The combination of information from monitoring posts and satellite data from the European Space Agency will be a real impetus not only for effective environmental policy in Ukraine but also for innovative solutions in software, health, data modelling, smart cities and smart notification systems.


Do you have an idea, project or know “shortcut” that can help Ukraine rapidly build a reliable system of air quality monitoring? Drop us a line:

We are just getting started. Breathe easily and nice.

Read these extra stories on work to improve the air quality in Ukraine

·        Tracking down major Iindustrial polluters from space [link].

·        Explore air pollution in Kyiv and Chernivtsi [link].