According to Berkeley Earth’s scientific director, Richard Muller, air pollution in Beijing is so highly polluted that spending the day there is equivalent to smoking more than 1 cigarette an hour. That’s more than 24 a day! Now, the simple fact that air pollution is being compared to smoking at all is pretty crazy to think about! Although smoking and air pollution may be hard to compare in the end, the truth remains that most places around the globe are today polluted. According to the World Health Organization, 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO’s guidelines. We can’t just ignore it. It’s time to start taking notice. It’s time to take back control.
What is Pollution
Before you march off to the parliament with a gas mask in one hand and a pitchfork in the other, perhaps it would be wise to let you know what air pollution actually is, and where it’s coming from.
Pollution is a contamination of the earth’s atmosphere, which damages the environment and living organisms. There are different kinds of pollution, like air and water, produced by both humans and natural sources. Air pollution is the Darth Vadar and most dangerous of all pollution since it chokes you to death using an invisible force and gives you the voice of an asthmatic.
What is air pollution
There are two main types of air pollution; particles and gases. Particulate Matter (PM) takes the form of solid elements or liquid droplets and includes pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon. These nasty little particles are either directly released into the atmosphere from fires, construction sites and so on, or from complex chemical reactions like those at power plants, or car exhausts. PM can vary in size. Some are big enough to see, like smoke, but most can’t be seen with the human eye. All particulate matter is inhalable and all are dangerous as they spread into our respiratory tract, lungs and blood circulation. The smaller the particle, the further it travels. All in all, not good stuff. But even smoggy clouds have a silver lining. PM is the best indicator of air pollution. If we can monitor air pollution, then we can fight against it.
Gaseous pollutants are just as grim. The main offenders are ozone, nitrous oxides, carbon oxides, and sulfur oxides. Before I go bashing ozone, I should mention that not all ozone is bad. Good ozone exists high up in our atmosphere and does a fantastic job of protecting us from harmful UV rays. Bad ozone can be found at ground level. It’s created by mixing certain pollutants with sunshine and destroying balanced ecosystems by reducing a plant's ability to photosynthesize. Most gaseous pollutants, not unsurprisingly, come from burning fossil fuels through industry, traffic and in homes. Basically, wherever humans hang out.
What Causes Pollution
Although some air pollution comes from natural sources, like volcanoes and wildfires, the lion share comes from us humans. We insist on burning fossil fuels despite knowing that we are damaging our health and the environment. But in our stubbornness, we refuse to change our consumption habits. Maybe ‘fossil fuels’ isn’t a scary enough term. If we changed ‘fossil fuels’ to ‘unicorns,’ would we burn as much?
With over 2,000 new cars a day hitting the streets in China, you can imagine the number of unicorns that get burnt and the resultant pollution. But let’s not just blame China. Across the world, people are attracted to the modern cities of tomorrow, in search of a better quality of life, employment opportunities, and a dwindling rural community. Who wouldn’t want to improve their own life? But with so many people moving to urban areas, the amount of unicorns needed to maintain our standard of living means that the higher risk areas are also the most populated. The health effects, as a result, worsen.
Why we are all at risk
In fact, the effects are so bad that air pollution kills around 16,000 people every single day. That’s more than aids and Malaria combined. I will go into more detail about how air pollution wrecks our health in later blog posts, but the point I am trying to make is that we all need to consider the air we are breathing and what it’s doing to us. And although the effects of air pollution are felt most by low-middle income countries, a global leader in air quality, like Canada, still pegs air pollution as the tenth leading risk factor for premature death. As Michael Brauer, University of British Columbia put it:
“We all have to breathe. Air pollution itself is not that toxic, but when you aggregate the small effect on the whole population, that becomes important. The contrary would be heroin or something much more toxic that not many people use.”