Each morning as I journey to work, I can’t help but notice the rising air pollution level. Since moving to Vietnam in 2014, I have watched the number of vehicles increase each month and I am concerned about the still-leaded gasoline, the constant flow of industrial toxins from construction sites, and the lack of environmental regulation.

I worry about my students and myself and have been searching for information and methods to protect my health. A study conducted between 2011 – 2015 by the Vietnamese Environment Ministry found that air quality has worsened in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay. Air pollution is measured using the Air Quality Index (AQI), which assigns a score from 0 to 300.

The higher the AQI number, the higher the health risk. When levels exceed 100, at-risk groups (the elderly, children, and those with asthma or heart problems) should avoid over-exertion outside. When levels exceed 200, at-risk groups should avoid all outdoor activities. You can track the AQI online here, and plan accordingly. > http://aqicn.org/city/vietnam/ho-chi-minh-city/us-consulate/.

Air pollution is not only a problem in Vietnam. Nearly 300 million children live in areas where outdoor air pollution is six or more times higher than international guidelines. “Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year – and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs – they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.” (UNICEF.org) UNICEF and organizations like it are working hard to teach health ministries and businesses how to limit air pollution and childhood exposure.

While we wait for governments to pass legislation and businesses to change to environmentally-safe practices, we also must take actions as individuals to protect ourselves and our children. We should avoid the following as much as possible: sitting in traffic jams, allowing children to play near factories or construction, and exercising outside during the highest heat of the day. We should strive to wear protective clothing, glasses, and masks, wash mold and mildew from hard surfaces, regularly dust and vacuum our homes, seek out greener spaces, and encourage all our schools to follow the AQI and implement safety measures. High-quality air filters are also available for purchase in Ho Chi Minh City; while they are quite expensive, the investment in health must be considered.   

Shannon Brown is a head teacher at Smart Kids International with a Master’s in Public Health. She cultivates healthy living by practicing yoga and rock climbing and has been living and teaching in HCM since 2014.