The man-made environmental catastrophe is the severest issue facing humanity. It should be the number one priority for governments, but 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 the population.
Contaminated air is the world’s greatest preventable environmental health risk, and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 6.5 million people annually (11.6% of global deaths) – an average of six every minute. And unless there is 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% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits”. And whilst 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, a 2015 study says, to emissions generated from burning coal, for electricity and heating homes.
Humanity is overwhelmingly responsible for this global crisis, and yet despite repeated warnings little of substance has been done and it’s getting worse. Since 2011 air pollution worldwide has risen 8%, and with 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% of annual deaths. Lung cancer and respiratory diseases take care of the rest.
Perhaps 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 industrialized 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 geo-political matter aggravated by the neo-liberal economic system. Some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of humanity are suffering the worst effects of air pollution, people living in countries where grinding poverty is widespread, education inadequate and health care provision poor.
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. And, as if all this weren’t bad enough, in 2013 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 phenomenon 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, Plume Labs relates, “comes from combustion – heating, electricity generation, (vehicle and boat engines), 50% 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, gasoline vapors, 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% of the world’s population now live in cities; by 2030 this figure is expected to rise to 65%. All cities suffer from traffic congestion and all are polluted, some more, some less. The Asian mega-cities are the most contaminated, and perhaps 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 (25 million population) comes in first; incidentally it’s also the noisiest place to live 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% complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4% of frequent headaches, 11.2% of nausea, 7.2% of palpitation and 12.9% of fatigue.” And 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 Nairobi, Kenya, pollution levels are between five and 10 times WHO recommended levels – worst in the slums, 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 a year.
And in America, according to a study by the American Lung Association, over 50% 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’s children who are the most vulnerable. This, 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 three hundred million children live in areas of South and East Asia where toxic fumes are more than six times 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 ten 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 (power plant, refinery, factory and motor vehicle emissions) are the primary culprits.
Deforestation is another cause. The great rainforests of the Earth are its lungs; they cover a mere 6% of the land, but produce around 40% of the world’s Oxygen; they also capture carbon. As the number of trees is reduced so oxygen production and carbon sequestration is diminished.
Whilst it’s true that deforestation has decreased somewhat over the last fifteen years or so, in some countries it is still occurring at an alarming rate. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (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, in 100 years, FAO predicts, 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 urbanization. (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 overwhelmingly used in developed countries. Up to half the world’s timber and 70% of paper is consumed by Europe, Japan and the US. The US alone, with only 5% of the world’s population, uses 30% of all paper, relates Rainforest Action Network; a large amount of which (estimated 40lbs/19 kilos 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 are 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 incentivize private ownership of electric and hydrogen vehicles; create more vehicle sharing schemes – car clubs and carpools; improve public transportation and greatly reduce fares; encourage cycling.
Some steps need to be taken by governments, but a great deal can be achieved by individuals accepting greater social/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 R’s into one’s life – reduce reuse recycle – would contribute greatly.
Like 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. And information sharing: making information about air pollution, the levels, risks, causes etc., 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,” states Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director. “No society can afford to ignore air pollution”. It is a deadly issue, which is causing untold suffering to millions of people. The responsibility for the wellbeing of the planet and of one another rests with all of us. Now is the time to act and Save our Planet.