BCD Travel study discovers potentially dangerous levels of air pollution in almost half of the 100 most visited business travel cities

A new study by leading travel management company BCD Travel shows that half of the most visited business travel destinations worldwide have dangerous levels of air pollution. At a regional level, only North America and Southwest Pacific can be considered relatively safe. All other regions have cities with air pollution levels ranging from moderate (Europe) to hazardous (Asia) or extremely hazardous (Middle East).

BCD Travel initiated the ‘Air Quality’ report, part of its Inform series, to warn travel managers about the risks of air pollution to their business travellers. The travel management company advises them to include the issue of air quality in their travel risk management programmes.

The report on air quality matches World Health Organization (WHO) data about air quality with its own data, mapping the 100 most popular business travel destinations worldwide. The results of the study are cause for concern. With only 10% of the world’s population breathing “clean air,” the chance of a business traveller being exposed to air pollution is very high.

Among the top 10 most-visited destinations worldwide — mostly located in North America and Europe — only three cities have clean air: San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia; six cities have moderate air pollution, of which Berlin has the highest. Shanghai, the only Asian city in the top 10, has a hazardous level of air pollution with possible severe health consequences.

Medical advice says short-term exposure to high air pollution levels can cause immediate symptoms like irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. According to the WHO, long-term exposure can contribute to significant health problems such as decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis or even heart attacks. And these negative health effects have economic consequences as well. Worldwide, the costs amount to almost USD6 trillion every year, according to BCD Travel.

Companies have a duty of care for their travellers and travel managers now have an increasing focus on traveller wellness and their legal responsibilities. BCD Travel recommends that travel risk management programmes include air quality guidelines. “By doing so, they can help improve travellers’ health and wellbeing, it says.

“We feel strongly about supporting our clients in executing duty of care to their travellers,” says Martin Weisskirchen, vice president of technology project and global crisis management at BCD Travel. “A good traveller security program is not only about addressing crisis situations like a terrorist attack, hurricane or earthquake, it’s also about day-to-day risks like a car accident or exposure to air pollution.”

The report shows that many of the world’s biggest cities exceed WHO’s safe levels for air pollution, in some cases by more than five times. These destinations are often business capitals, frequently visited by business travellers.

US markets seemingly offer the lowest levels of air pollution with Fort Lauderdale, Seattle/Tacoma and Tucson all recording PM2.5 rates of μg/m3.  WHO measures a wide range of concentrations of fine particulate matter pollutants in the air, but BCD Travel only considered PM2.5 in its analysis because it includes pollutants such as sulphates, nitrates and black carbon, which present the greatest risk to human health.

In total, 45 cities were found to have PM2.5 rates of less than 10 μg/m3, deemed safe. This list is dominated by North American cities but also includes Melbourne and Sydney, in Australia, and Dublin, Gothenburg, Helsinki and Oslo, in Europe, among the safe destinations. Health problems are deemed possible at PM2.5 rates of between 10 μg/m3 and 26 μg/m3 and 38 cities were included in this list with Bucharest, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, Taipei and Warsaw all with ratings above 20 μg/m3.

A further 17 cities recorded potentially hazardous PM2.5 rates of greater than 26 μg/m3. While Milan and Shenzhen are at the bottom end of this list with PM2.5 rates of 27 μg/m3, the most polluted had rates more than six times this level. The top three were Beijing, Riyadh (both with rates of 73 μg/m3) and Delhi with a recording of 143 μg/m3.