Left Column

Are deaths by air pollution rising globally?

A highly publicized 2017 Lancet commission on pollution and health painted a vivid portrait of global air quality. According to the report, air pollution is one of the world’s most dangerous killers. Nearly 7 million premature deaths per year are linked t

A highly publicized 2017 Lancet commission on pollution and health painted a vivid portrait of global air quality. According to the report, air pollution is one of the world’s most dangerous killers. Nearly 7 million premature deaths per year are linked to air pollution.1

Global air pollution is one of the biggest public health issues of our time. And you can help fight it in small but significant ways.

Knowing the causes of local air pollution is the first step. Then, making changes to your lifestyle and getting involved in your community can help improve millions of lives by making the air a little bit cleaner.

What are the biggest sources of air pollution affecting my community?

The Lancet report focused on three types of air pollution:

  • Household air pollution: This type of pollution can stem from indoor cooking, cleaning chemicals and even poor ventilation while using heating or air conditioning.2
  • Ambient fine-particulate pollution (PM2.5): PM2.5 particles come from many sources, including vehicle exhaust and factory emissions. They can get into your bloodstream and cause heart and lung conditions.3
  • Tropospheric (ground-level) ozone: This dangerous type of ozone forms when heat interacts with chemicals in the lower atmosphere. It can trigger asthma symptoms and even permanently harm your lungs.4

The report also found that relative wealth and poverty influence the sources of pollution in a community and how acutely they harm those communities.

Developed countries face dangerous pollution from industrialization. But many of these nations have a lot of resources to make policy changes that improve air quality. For example, the 1970 Clean Air Act in the United States helped decrease air pollution by 70% in a matter of decades.5

Wealth and poverty influence the sources of pollution in a community and how acutely they harm those communities.

But 92% of the worldwide air pollution-related deaths happen in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). These countries have far less resources to combat air pollution. Pollution-related health problems and deaths are also common among minority groups more likely to live in or near poor and polluted areas.6,7,8

Pollution linked to poverty

Poor and developing areas suffer the worst air pollution.9

Nearly 3 billion people still rely on biomass fuels for light, heat and cooking. These fuels, which include firewood and animal dung, are crucial for survival where electricity, gas and oil aren’t available.

But biomass fuels contain dangerous particles and chemicals like sulfur and nitrogen and quickly build up indoors. This can cause damage to your lungs, trigger asthma and cause life-threatening breathing problems.

Many communities are also exposed to other dangerous pollutants:

  • Coal facilities near indigenous Adivasi communities in India have caused millions to leave their homes due to deadly pollution generated by power plants and coal burning. 
  • Lead, zinc and coal mines near villages in South Africa and Peru cause lung conditions like silicosis because of airborne particles produced by mining.
  • Oil and gas production near poor communities in Latin America have led to large-scale pollution in areas that don’t have the resources to regulate corporations or clean pollution left behind by production activities.
  • Electronic waste (E-waste) recycling in places like China, Ghana, and Vietnam creates toxic fumes from the burning of electronics for their raw minerals. Nearly 50 million tons of e-waste travels to these countries each year, threatening the health of nearby communities. Many communities rely on these e-waste facilities for jobs and income, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and pollution.

Pollution linked to industrial development

Many industrialized regions aren’t as exposed to solid fuels and mining as poorer, developing regions are. But other types of pollutants have become rampant, including:

  • Ambient air pollution from vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions and electricity production.10
  • Chemical pollution from agricultural pesticides and herbicides (also called “weed killers”).11

Ambient air pollution, especially PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, has been linked to:

  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Birth defects
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • COPD
  • Cancer

Increasing concentrations of chemical pollution have been linked to:

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and dementia
  • Endocrine disruption, which stunts growth and can cause cancer

Some cities in industrialized countries bear the worst of this pollution.

Mira Loma Village, a California city 50 miles east of Los Angeles, is surrounded by factory smoke, heavy vehicle traffic, and pollutants blown in from the coast and trapped by the surrounding San Gabriel mountains. Children and adults living in this region experience lower lung capacity and higher rates of asthma and lung cancer.

Located in California’s Central Valley, Bakersfield faces pollution from pesticides, fertilizer and several busy highways within the city limits. Located in the center of California’s enormous agricultural industry, Bakersfield and other Central Valley cities, such as Fresno and Visalia, regularly outrank even notoriously polluted cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Beijing on lists of the world’s dirtiest cities.

What’s next for global air pollution?

Global deaths from air pollution will rise if nothing changes. Deaths could increase over 50% by 2050 due to PM2.5 pollution alone.

Cities suffering from new, deadly combinations of air pollution regularly appear in the news. In 2017, the Indian city of Delhi was named the most polluted city on Earth by numerous publications due to extreme levels of PM2.5. Much of this pollution was caused by a mixture of pollution from sources old and new - smog from millions of cars, factories and construction sites coupled with large-scale biomass fuel burning in the surrounding regions.12

Global deaths from air pollution will rise if nothing changes. Deaths could increase over 50% by 2050 due to PM2.5 pollution alone.

In the same year, the city of Lahore, Pakistan experienced a similar pollution crisis. Massive amounts of biofuel smoke and largely unregulated factory emissions regularly result in smog so thick and toxic that it’s called a “fifth season.” A 2015 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that air pollution killed 60,000 residents that year, and pollution concentrations have only risen since.13

It’s not all bad news. The Supreme Court of India has passed laws to protect Adivasi communities from polluted air caused by mining.14 The Gyapa Stoves project has also addressed coal and biomass pollution in Accra, Ghana. Since 2008, this project has improved local air quality by nearly 50%.

What can I do to help?

Even small, gradual changes in your daily life can save millions of lives as you take part in the global movement to clean our air.

  • Make changes to your commute. Getting around town can be difficult without a car. But if you can, use alternative commuting options to limit the time you spend in your car.
    • Carpool with friends, classmates or coworkers to reduce the number of cars on the road.
    • Use public transportation, such as the bus or train, even only a few times a week to help lower levels of vehicle emissions significantly.15
    • Walk or bike to work to reduce not only vehicle emissions but also your risk of developing conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.16,17
    • Consider buying a hybrid or electric vehicle. These vehicles use gasoline fuel efficiently or not at all, greatly reducing emissions from combustion engine exhaust.18
  • Avoid burning solid fuels. Try alternatives to biomass fuels. For example, use a pellet stove or coconut shell charcoal, which releases fewer toxic pollutants.19
  • Use an exhaust hood when cooking. A stove hood that covers the entire cooking surface can limit indoor air pollution from smoke and gases.
  • Use green cleaning chemicals. Avoid cleaners that contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.
  • Protect yourself with a high-performance air purifier.
    • The IQAir HealthPro® Plus filters 99.97% of even the smallest ultrafine particles, such as those from vehicles and nearby factory exhaust, from your indoor air.
    • The Atem® personal air purifier by IQAir filters 99.5% of particles down to 0.003 microns from your personal breathing zone. With the Atem, you can breathe virtually pure air even when you’re surrounded by polluted air.
  • Monitor your local air quality. Use an AirVisual Pro by IQAir to keep track of your local air quality. AirVisual displays 72-hour historical and forecast data so that you can know when and why your air quality changes. Air quality data can help keep local polluters accountable by showing details of pollution’s effects on local air quality.
  • Get involved. Become familiar with local environmental justice groups and policymakers and how they represent your community’s air quality interests. Simply showing up at regular city council meetings can help you get in tune with your community air quality issues.

There’s a lot of work be done. But around the world, communities are already experiencing the benefits of increased awareness and action about air pollution.

And you can start helping today. All you have to do is look around and begin to understand where your community fits into the portrait of global air pollution.

---

Footnotes:

[1] Landrigan PJ, et al. (2017). The Lancet Commission on pollution and health.
DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0

[2] Apte K, et al. (2016). Household air pollution and its effects on health.
DOI: 10.12688/f1000research.7552.1

[3] Xing Y, et al. (2016). The impact of PM2.5 on the human respiratory system.
DOI: 10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2016.01.19

[4] Ozone and your health. (2016).
https://www.cdc.gov/air/ozone.html 

[5] Ross K, et al. (2012). The impact of the Clean Air Act.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2012.06.064

[6] Ethnic and racial minorities & socioeconomic status. (2017).
http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/minorities.aspx 

[7] Collins MB, et al. (2016). Linking ‘toxic outliers’ to environmental justice communities.
DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/015004

[8] Downey L, et al. (2008). Race, income, and environmental inequality in the United States.
DOI: 10.1525/sop.2008.51.4.759

[9] 2016 world’s worst pollution problems. (2016).
http://www.worstpolluted.org/docs/WorldsWorst2016Spreads.pdf 

[10] Cohen AJ, et al. (2017). Estimates and 25-year trends of the global burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution: an analysis of data from the Global Burden of Diseases Study 2015.
DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30505-6 

[11] Gore AC, et al. (2014). Introduction to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
https://www.endocrine.org/-/media/endosociety/files/advocacy-and-outreach/important-documents/introduction-to-endocrine-disrupting-chemicals.pdf 

[12] Khanum F, et al. (2017). Characterization of five-year observation data of fine particulate matter in the metropolitan area of Lahore.
DOI: 10.1007/s11869-017-0464-1

[13] Irfan U. (2017). How Delhi became the most polluted city on Earth.
https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/11/22/16666808/india-air-pollution-new-delhi 

[14] Gwilliam K, et al. (2004). Reducing air pollution from urban transport.
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2a31/85fe2555728a02413b4c7bd13d34cc9b6588.pdf 

[15] Saha S, et al. (2011). Under-mining health: Environmental justice and mining in India.
DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.09.007 

[16] Torjesen I. (2017). Cycling to work has substantial health benefits, study finds.
DOI: 10.1136/bmj.j1944

[17] Pucher J, et al. (2010). Walking and cycling to health: A comparative analysis of city, state, and international data.
DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2009.189324

[18] Tonachel L. (2015). Study: Electric vehicles can dramatically reduce carbon pollution from transportation, and improve air quality.
https://www.nrdc.org/experts/luke-tonachel/study-electric-vehicles-can-dramatically-reduce-carbon-pollution 

[19] Ecofriendly alternatives to burning wood in your fireplace. (2011).
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ecofriendly-fireplace-alternatives/

 

Right Column