This post is about the health impacts of air pollution and is part of a three-post series discussing the different effects of pollution on society. Pollution can have drastic effects on the health of humans. The World Health Organisation reports that in 2012, approximately 7 million people died, “one in eight of total global deaths” (WHO). This puts air pollution in the number one spot for the largest environmental health risk.
Both indoor and outdoor air pollution have huge effects on humans. People in cities suffer most from outdoor air pollution due to industry and fossil fuel combustion in vehicles. NOx is formed from the nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere when it is exposed to intense heat from either combustion or lightning. NOx is a catalyst for the formation of additional pollution, such as ozone and particulate matter. While NOx is harmful on its own, its role in creating more ozone and particulate matter make it especially hazardous. This cycle makes vehicle congested areas so dangerous for human health.
Indoor air pollution is a significant concern for buildings located near pollution hotspots in cities. The high level of emissions can easily find their way into buildings through open windows or doors, as well as the HVAC system, if the system is not properly filtered. This can be a occupational health concern for those working in a shop, reception desk, or office with open windows or doors in a pollution hotspot area.
Indoor air pollution also has a serious impact on the health of people in developing countries that do not have clean methods of cooking. Due to the poor combustion of coal or wood, fine particles (PM2.5) are produced. These particles are so small that they can penetrate the lungs and cause many health issues, such as heart attacks and chronic respiratory disease, along with other illnesses. Targeting indoor cooking practices and launching sustainable initiatives that reduce these pollutants could save millions of lives.
The map below, from this article, visualises the concentration of particulate matter around the world.
NO2 is another dangerous form of pollution. It is usually formed in combustion, but can be formed naturally from lightning. NO2 also plays a large roll in smog and is very prevalent in cities around the world. Breathing in high levels of NO2 can result in problems such as more intense asthma, coughing, bronchitis, among other issues in all humans including the elderly, fetuses, children, and adults.
The elderly and the young are most susceptible to air pollution damage, even trace amount of pollutants and metals found in the blood can result in sizeable damage. However, air pollution impacts everyone, with varying degrees of susceptibility. Research has shown that fetuses are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, resulting in slightly lower IQs and as well as risk to premature birth, low birthweight, and, in some cases, autism and asthma. Fetuses living in highly polluted air affect them long after they are born.
Many children also spend plenty of time outdoors, often in playgrounds, breathing in the polluted air. This can lead to major health concerns that affect them for the rest of their lives. Certain cities have taken measures that stops children from playing outside when air pollution is particularly bad. Adults who spend hours in their car every day driving through traffic or spend time in pollution hotspots are also at high risk for cardiac and respiratory issues associated with air pollution.
Over half of the people in the world live in cities, and 88% of these cities are above the threshold for safe air quality, as set by World Health Organisation. For example, London exceeded the annual limits just five days into 2017. As more people move into cities, the effects of air pollution on humans are only going to increase. While the facts about pollution are very concerning, there are many things that can be done to limit exposure and health risks.
One way to alleviate the dangers of air pollution is from stopping it at its sources. An initiative that is working on the reduction of air pollution is Breathe Life. This is a collaborative campaign between the World Health Organisation, Climate & Clean Air Coalition, and UN Environment that “aims to mobilise cities and individuals” to improve air pollution. The initiative is doing this by connecting cities, increasing monitoring, accelerating solutions, and empowering individuals around the globe to meet World Health Organisation targets by 2030. For example, by improving domestic heating and cooking in developing areas, black carbon and both indoor and outdoor air pollution can greatly be improved and countless lives can be saved. While these are good solutions, they take time an input from citizens and government to implement.
Airlabs technology can remove the dangerous pollutants in hotspots across cities, limiting human exposure here and now. This dynamic initiative can be supported by the public and private sector thus is a significant opportunity for reducing air pollution exposure in cities. Hotspots are the areas that have the worst pollution due to low ventilation, high pollution emission, and plenty of humans. Examples of hotspots are sidewalks, train stations, and outdoor cafes, among others. Airlabs is the most direct, immediate way to protect humans from dangerous pollutants in outdoor open spaces. This technology also puts the control into the hands of consumers, companies, and local authorities and does not rely on legislation. In this way Airlabs technology is very flexible and is incredibly small, effective, and efficient.
If you are interested in learning more about the health impacts of air pollution, here is some further reading:
- Breathe Life resource page
- Royal College of Physicians; Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution
- CCAC Short Lived Climate Pollutants
- Breathe Life Reducing Global Health Risks
blog post by Anna Moros