The Quick Guide to the Environmental Issues We Need to Tackle
There is no life without air; in an average lifetime, approximately two hundred and fifty million liters of air pass through a human’s lungs. But, if you take a walk down a city street, your lungs inhale about twenty million harmful particles in just a single breath.
Pollutants in the air now account for one in nine deaths and are the largest environmental risk. It claims over seven million lives each year – is far more than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.
I think it is time we understand that air pollution is a global health emergency.
Who does it affect?
Ninety percent of the world’s population is living in places where air pollution is above the WHO recommended levels. Children are especially vulnerable due to their developing bodies yet three hundred million live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution.
It is particularly bad in Asia where the bulk of the world’s population resides; traffic, lack of regulations and the burning of waste triples the issues.
Cities in India occupy 22 spots on the top 50 most polluted cities along with 8 Chinese and three Iranian cities. Africa is quite polluted too but it has not been properly measured.
However, the issue is hardly restricted to developing countries. In 2015, pollution in Paris hit levels more than twice the safe limit and there are still five hundred thousand deaths every year in the European continent.
There are different types of air pollution
The most damaging type is tiny particles that damage the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream often entering vital organs like the brain, liver, and kidneys. Consisting of carbon, nitrate, sulphate and ammonia, these particles are mostly produced when fossil fuels or wood is burnt – which happens a lot.
Farming is a source of pollution where ammonia from livestock manure and fertilizer blows into the cities and forms particles, especially during spring when crops are generally sown. Nitrogen dioxide (a byproduct of diesel engines) also turn into particles but not that’s not the worst; the particles can be very harmful when inhaled and is the cause for up to twenty three thousand early deaths in the UK.
Natural air pollution sources do exist (dust storms and smoke from forest fires) but the level of pollutants emitted pale in contrast to human sources.
We should be safe indoors, yes?
Sadly, no. Indoor pollution causes almost four million early deaths – some poor souls have to deal with both indoor and outdoor air pollution.
Approximately fifty percent of the world uses open fire for cooking; fueled by wood, charcoal, kerosene and other dirty fuels.
The number of people switching to better fuels and stoves is increasing. In China, lung cancer fell by forty percent after farmers switched to stoves with chimneys in their houses. However, thanks to a steady rise in the world population, there has been no decrease in the number of people exposed to indoor pollution.
How harmful is air pollution?
At this point, it is much simpler to ask what harm it doesn’t do! Studies on the topic have linked polluted air to nearly every organ in the body including the mind.
Research in 2016 showed that air pollution was responsible for three million cases of diabetes while kidney disease and Alzheimer’s also appear to be influenced by it. Furthermore, exposure to polluted air makes the skin age faster.
Its effects on babies are more troubling. Toxic air is known to increase the chances of low birth weight which can cause permanent health damage while millions of premature birth and birth defects can be attributed to toxic air.
Quite recently, it has been revealed that pollution particles have been found in mothers’ placentas, a finding that could have massive repercussions on the fetus. As these children grow, asthma and stunted growth of the lungs are some of the issues they may face. Moreover, a recent study in 2018 found that air pollution can cause a reduction in a person’s IQ.
The only way to handle this global issue is to cut down air pollution at its roots. Measures like masks, Vitamin B for protection against air pollution and pollution monitoring apps have all been touted as ways that can help reduce exposure to toxic air but these help treat the symptom, not the cause.
At a grass root level, conserving energy at home or work, purchasing electronic equipment with the ENERGY STAR sticker and opting for public transportation are some of the ways you can reduce the air pollution you contribute to. It all burns down to the conservation of energy and minimizing wastage; efficient appliances and well tuned cars reduce energy consumption and in the case of a vehicle, the output of harmful gases. You should also attempt to use ecofriendly paints and cleaning products when possible.
The bulk of responsibility lies with corporations and governments who must ensure that corporations stick to regulations. Companies use the air to get rid of their waste, destroying a shared environment in the process and avoiding any accountability for their actions. The use of coal needs to be phased out, public transportation improved and citizens must be encouraged to ditch their cats and make building more energy efficient.
On the positive side, the use of coal has been declining around the world and China has shown that industrial pollution can be curbed in double time. Four years after declaring war on pollution, the country managed to reduce particle pollution by 33%.
But urban dwelling is increasing with almost seven billion people expected to settle in cities by 2050. How these cities are built will be vital to a clean environment. There must be a higher focus on environmentally friendly modes of transportation; think walking, bicycling and public transport modes. It won’t be possible to keep all private vehicles off the road but we can ensure they stick to strict pollution regulations. Buildings need to be heated or cooled using renewable sources of energy and waste management must be carefully controlled. There has been progress. Cities in the Netherlands and Denmark have given up on cars and South Korea’s capital went as far as to demolish fifteen expressways to make way for bus lanes and a river.