Save our planet: Worldwide air pollution is making us ill

Industrial pollution

By Graham Peebles

The man-made environmental catastrophe is the severest issue facing humanity. It should be the number one priority for governments. However, despite repeated calls from scientists, environmental groups and concerned citizens for years, short-term policies and economic self-interest are consistently given priority over the integrity of the planet and the health of people.

Environmental inequality

Contaminated air is the world’s greatest preventable environmental health risk. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 6.5 million people annually (11.6 per cent of global deaths) – an average of six every minutEe. Unless there is a substantial reduction in the quantity of pollutants cast into the atmosphere, the death count is forecast to double by 2050. Indoor air pollution, mainly from wood or dung stoves in developing countries, accounts for a staggering three million annual deaths.

Breathing – even in one’s own home  – has become more dangerous than poor diet, lack of exercise or smoking tobacco.

The problem of toxic air is a worldwide pandemic. A recent WHO air quality model reveals that, “92 per cent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits”. Moreover, while contaminated air affects virtually everyone, almost two out of three people killed simply by breathing live in south-east Asia and the western Pacific. This includes China, where air pollution is responsible for the deaths of around 4,000 people a day (1.6 million a year), due to emissions generated from burning coal for electricity and heating homes.

Humanity is overwhelmingly responsible for this global crisis. Yet, despite repeated warnings, little of substance has been done and it is getting worse. Since 2011 air pollution worldwide has risen 8 per cent and, given the current fossil fuel obsession, the increase looks set to continue, and with it human fatalities and a range of chronic health issues. Most deaths are caused by microscopic particles being inhaled: these spark heart attacks and strokes, which account for 75 per cent of annual deaths. Lung cancer and respiratory diseases take care of the rest.

Unsurprisingly, it is the poorest people in the world who suffer the most severe effects of air pollution.

As well as the injustice of social and economic inequality, we live in a world of environmental inequality. If you are a poor child living in a city in a developing country, you are up to 10 times more likely to suffer long-term health issues as a result of breathing the air in which you live, than a child in a rich industrialised nation.

Regional air inequality broadly follows the same North-South hemisphere fault lines as economic inequality, and as such reveals that, as well as being a global environmental issue of the utmost importance, air pollution is a geopolitical matter aggravated by the neo-liberal economic system. Some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of humanity – people living in countries where grinding poverty is widespread, education inadequate and health care provision poor – are suffering the worst effects of air pollution.

Poisonous air

Air pollution causes a wide range of health issues. In addition to heart disease and respiratory conditions including asthma – now the most common chronic disease in children – there is “substantial evidence concerning the adverse effects of air pollution on pregnancy outcomes and infant death”, according to research by the Medical University of Silesia in Warsaw, Poland. As if all this weren’t bad enough, in 2013 the WHO concluded that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic, i.e. it causes cancer.

The main pollutants that trigger all these problems are broadly three types: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is a suffocating gas, and ground-level ozone.

PM2.5 come from road traffic exhaust fumes and burning fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal, as well as natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions. PM concentrations in the air vary depending on temperature and wind speed; they particularly like cold, still conditions, which allow them to aggregate.

NO2, according to Plume Labs, comes from combustion  (heating, electricity generation, vehicle and boat engines). Half of NO2 emissions are due to traffic.

Ground-level ozone is a major component of smog and is produced when “oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – from motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, power plants, petrol vapours and chemical solvents – interact with sunlight”.

The way in which these poisons are produced varies somewhat from country to country, but they abound in all densely populated, built-up areas, where there are large numbers of motor vehicles, as well as coal-fired power plants and refineries. Emissions from residential energy use, prevalent in India and China, Nature Magazine reports, “have the largest impact on premature mortality globally”. In eastern USA, Europe, Russia and east Asia, a remarkably high number of illnesses and fatalities result from air pollution caused by agricultural emissions, mainly nitrous oxide and methane.

Children worst hit

Over 50 per cent of the world’s population now live in cities; by 2030 this figure is expected to rise to 65 per cent. All cities suffer from traffic congestion and all are polluted, some more, some less. The Asian mega-cities are the most contaminated, and unsurprisingly the cities of India and Pakistan are the worst, filling the top seven positions of conurbations with the highest level of PM2.5 in the world. The Indian capital (population 25 million) comes in first; incidentally, it is also the noisiest place to live in on the planet.

In an unprecedented study of 11,000 schoolchildren from 36 schools in Delhi, it was found that over half the children had irreversible lung damage. In addition, “about 15 per cent complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4 per cent of frequent headaches, 11.2 per cent of nausea, 7.2 per cent of palpitation and 12.9 per cent of fatigue”. Consistent with research in Poland, it was revealed that the children’s mental health was also impacted, with large numbers suffering attention deficit and stress.

All around the world people are suffering from the impact of toxic air. In Mumbai, simply breathing on the chaotic streets is equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day; deaths increase six-fold on heavily polluted hot days in Athens; and mega-Mexico City – one of the world’s most polluted cities – has recently been branded a ‘hardship post’ for diplomats due to unhealthy air. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, pollution levels are between five and 10 times the WHO’s recommended levels – worst in the slums, which are home to up to three million people.

London is one of the more polluted cities in Europe, cleaner than Paris and Milan, but dirtier than Berlin and Oslo. Almost 10,000 people die each year in the city from long-term exposure to air pollution, which is now considered Britain’s most lethal environmental risk, killing around 40,000 people throughout the country a year.

In America, according to a study by the American Lung Association, over 50 per cent of the population is exposed to air pollution toxic enough to cause health problems, with Los Angeles topping the list of places to avoid.

No matter where air pollution occurs, it is children who are the most vulnerable. This, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF relates, “is because they breathe more rapidly than adults and the cell layer in their lungs is more permeable to pollutant particles”. Research by the children’s agency found that 300 million children live in areas of south and east Asia where toxic fumes are more than six times the international guidelines; another 520 million children living in sub-Saharan Africa are exposed to air pollution levels above the WHO limit. These toxic fumes cause “enduring damage to health and the development of children’s brain”, and contributed to “600,000 child deaths a year” – more than are caused by malaria and HIV/Aids combined.

Air pollution not only results in long-term health issues, it impedes a child’s cognitive development, affecting concentration and academic progress. The Warsaw paper states that “children who live in neighbourhoods with serious air pollution problems… have lower IQ and score worse in memory tests than children from cleaner environments… The effects were roughly equivalent to those seen in children whose mothers smoked 10 cigarettes per day while pregnant.”

Air pollution and deforestation

Some air pollution is the result of natural phenomena: dust storms and wildfires, animal digestion and volcanic eruptions.

However, burning fossil fuels (emissions from power plants, refineries, factories and motor vehicles) are the primary culprits.

Deforestation is another cause. The great rainforests of the Earth are its lungs; they cover a mere 6 per cent of the land but produce around 40 per cent of the world’s oxygen, and they capture carbon. As the number of trees is reduced, so oxygen production and carbon sequestration is diminished. 

While it is true that deforestation has decreased somewhat over the last 15 years or so, in some countries it is still occurring at an alarming rate. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate that 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest are lost each year (roughly equivalent to 20 football fields every minute), around 13 million acres (approximately the size of Greece) being tropical rainforest. Half the world’s rainforests have already been wiped out, and if the current level of destruction continues, the FAO predicts that in 100 years there will be none left. Brazil, Thailand, the Congo, parts of Eastern Europe and Indonesia are where forests are being cleared most intensely, particularly Indonesia.

The major reason forests are being destroyed is to make more land available for agriculture, which is an effect of overpopulation. Clearing land to make way for housing and urbanisation (another demand of population growth) is a factor, as is Illegal deforestation, with trees being cut down and used for fuel.

Paper production is another major reason, paper that is used overwhelmingly in developed countries. Up to half the world’s timber and 70 per cent of paper is consumed by Europe, Japan and the US. According to Rainforest Action Network, the US alone, with only 5 per cent of the world’s population, uses 30 per cent of all paper, a large amount of which (estimated 40lbs, or 19 kilograms, per adult per year) is junk mail, almost half of which is binned unopened.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

If we are to stop the deaths and damaging health effects resulting from breathing contaminated air, it is abundantly clear that we need to replace fossil fuels with cleaner, renewable energy sources and simplify the way we live.

In addition, there is a variety of things that can be done to reduce pollutants: we need to stop the destruction of forests worldwide, install filters in every chimneystack, replace petrol-and diesel-powered public transport and incentivise private ownership of electric and hydrogen vehicles, create more vehicle-sharing schemes, improve public transportation and greatly reduce fares, and encourage cycling.

Some steps need to be taken by governments, but a great deal can be achieved by individuals accepting greater social and environmental responsibility: a move towards simpler modes of living, in which our lives are not driven by the insatiable urge for material goods, is essential. Incorporating the three Rs into one’s life – reduce reuse, recycle – would contribute greatly.

As with many of our problems, sharing has a role to play in solving the problem of air pollution: sharing the resources and wealth of the world equitably to reduce poverty and inequality, as well as sharing skills, knowledge and technologies. Also information sharing: making information about air pollution publicly available would further raise awareness of an invisible issue. This is particularly needed in developing countries, where many of those affected have little or no information on the dire health risks. Government agencies everywhere collect data on air pollution, some publish it, many don’t, all should.

“The magnitude of the danger air pollution poses is enormous,” says Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director. “No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”

It is a deadly issue that is causing untold suffering to millions of people. The responsibility for the wellbeing of the planet and for each other rests with all of us. Now is the time to act and save our planet.

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