Imagine this: when you jump into the pool, you take a deep breath. When you feel anxious, you take a deep breath. When you see fresh baked cookies, you take a deep breath. Whenever you need to, it’ll be there for you. On any given day, you could be taking in over 23,000 breaths. If you’re from a country that has decent air quality, that’s wonderful – no worries.
But, if you’re from any of the countries that have an orange, red, or purple flag (refer to the map below) then you’re at mild to severe risk of air quality-related health issues.
In New York City, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there are about 400 cases of premature deaths, over 800 hospital visits, and 4000 emergency room visits from reasons related to ozone. Now, what’s Ozone? There are two types of Ozone; one is high Ozone, which is the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that blocks out harmful solar radiation, and the second is ground-level Ozone that is just a fancy term for smog – the smoke in the sky that appears like fog. We like the high Ozone, not so much love for the ground-level Ozone pollution.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), for those cities that report on air quality, only 12% of those cities actually comply with the WHO air quality standards. To extend this, of the urban populations that are monitored for air quality, half of them are exposed to at least 2.5 times the WHO air pollution level guidelines. This puts people at additional risks for serious and long-term health issues.
IQAir has a continuously updating air quality and pollution rankings list, and at the time of writing this, Shanghai, China; Delhi, India; Hanoi, Vietnam; Kuwait City, Kuwait; and Dubai, UAE are the top five most air polluted cities in the world. These countries have anywhere between 3 – 25 million residents; 3 – 25 million potential victims of air quality-related health issues.
Air Pollution and the Importance
To dive a little deeper, the Air Quality Index (AQI) is responsible for measuring air quality; measurements can be taken from thermostat-looking devices. The scale ranges from 0 – 500. You’re safe from 0 – 100, but anything above that could create damage to your health.
According to the New South Wales Government, the following are the most common air pollutants:
- Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
- Particle matter (PM) are extremely small particles and liquid droplets that are found in the air that can get into the lungs and bloodstream
- These particles could be made up of components such as nitrates, sulphates, organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles, and allergens
- Sources: motor vehicles, wood burning heaters, bushfires, etc.
Deep Dive: Fine particle matter (PM) of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter is classified as PM2.5; the best indicator of the level of health risks from air pollution. The WHO guideline for air quality states that PM2.5 should not exceed 10 μg/m³ annual mean, or 25 μg/m³ 24-hour mean; and PM10 should not exceed 20 μg/m³ annual mean, or 50 μg/m³ 24-hour mean. These guidelines ensure that the mean concentration of particle matter is under control. Wrapping it back, about half of the countries that report air quality levels do not meet proper standards and exceed these guidelines.
To give it some perspective, PM2.5 at a concentration of 10 is the lowest level in which cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality have been shown to increase with long-term exposure (with a 95% confidence level). Increased exposure to particle matter and sulfur oxide-related pollution is highly correlated with cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths.
- Ozone (O3)
- Ozone, O3, is composed of three oxygen atoms joined together; three oxygen atoms make for an unstable and highly reactive gas
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- Nitrogen dioxide is a highly reactive gas
- Sources: emissions from motor vehicles, industry, gas heaters/stoves
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless, colourless gas
- It forms when the carbon in fuels do not completely burn out
- Sources: motor vehicles, gas heaters, wood-burning heaters, and cigarette smoke
TIP: If you don’t already have carbon monoxide detectors in your home, go out to your local hardware store and grab one – it could save your life.
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
- Sulphur dioxide is a highly reactive gas with a pungent smell
- Sources: fossil fuel combustion at power plants and industrial facilities
FACT: According to the WHO, 11 of the 12 cities with the worst PM2.5 pollution are in India due to cars, coal cookstoves, forest fires, and other factors.
Although anti-pollution laws are set in place, they are rarely enforced; environmental law is often overlooked.
According to New South Wales Government, the size of particles affects their potential and severity of health problems:
PM2.5 – particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less are capable of entering your lungs and bloodstream. PM10 – particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less are capable of entering through your throat and nose to invade your lungs. Whether PM2.5 or PM10, these particles can cause detrimental damage to the heart and lungs.
Often times, we may think that the developed countries have it better off, but that’s not the case with air pollution, an important stat to notice is that 816 cities reported to PM2.5 levels and 544 cities to PM10 levels come from high-income countries.
What About the Future?
If keeping the air clean and your body free of air pollution-related health concerns are your goals, then a few tips are to:
- Ensure unnecessary lights or appliances are turned off/unplugged when not used
- Air conditioning is used minimally (the warmer weather has arrived – may be useful)
- Use Energy Star or other energy-efficient appliances
- Drive less and car-pool, use public transit or bike to work instead
- Refrain from using chemical substances often (i.e. cleaning products, paints, glues, etc.)
- Double-check for leaks from household appliances, fireplaces, and other gas-powered items
- EDUCATE YOURSELF!
As a kid, I had my fair share of breathing problems; asthma was a reoccurring health concern of mine throughout my childhood, and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. In elementary school, whenever it was time for recess or gym class, I’d refrain from working my body too hard, because I was afraid that I’d collapse and need to rush to the hospital. To this day, I am grateful that I don’t require my inhalers to breathe properly and trust me, it took me a while to live my life normally without these aids.
You don’t want to know what it was like to rely on something else to keep your lungs working properly. Take care of your body and take care of our planet, so that you can take a deep breath.