Air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world. According to new data from the World Health Organization (WHO), 9 out of 10 people breathe air with high concentrations of pollutants. Every year, ambient (atmospheric) and indoor air pollution claim 7 million lives. Lung disease is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.
Harmful substances in the air affect the entire human body: the skin, mucous membranes, organs of vision and smell, disrupt the immune system, cause cancer, and increase the risk of having children with malformations, but our respiratory organs suffer the most. Every sixth death in the world is associated with lung diseases. According to WHO experts, the cause of various tumors in 30% of cases is air pollution.
This reduces our quality of life and can potentially increase society’s health and social care costs. It also negatively impacts our ability to learn, work and contribute to society.
What Is Air Pollution
Air pollution refers to the presence of any chemical, physical or biological substances in it. Emissions from industrial enterprises, car exhaust, stove heating in homes, fires (forest fires, burning of garbage dumps and peat bogs, etc.), and volcanic eruptions are the main sources of air pollution. The most dangerous pollutants include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and formaldehyde. When inhaling, just such air enters a person’s lungs, saturated with harmful gasses and aerosols, dust, smoke, and dirt. It may contain pathogenic bacteria and viruses, dust mites, and allergens.
Health Effects of Air Pollution
Air pollution negatively affects our health. It is one of the causes of allergies and diseases of the respiratory system. That is why the quality of the air we breathe is so important.
The most immediate and noticeable health impact of air pollution is respiratory problems. Inhalation of polluted air can cause or exacerbate asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs, leading to inflammation, reduced lung function, and respiratory distress.
Long-term exposure to air pollution has been strongly linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants can enter the bloodstream, triggering inflammation and oxidative stress. This can contribute to developing conditions like hypertension, heart attacks, stroke, and atherosclerosis.
Prolonged exposure to certain air pollutants, particularly carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde, has been associated with an elevated risk of lung cancer. The combustion of fossil fuels, industrial emissions, and tobacco smoke are among the primary sources of these carcinogenic substances.
Impaired Lung Development in Children
Children exposed to high levels of air pollution are at risk of experiencing impaired lung development. The detrimental effects can persist into adulthood, leading to lifelong respiratory problems and reduced lung capacity. Moreover, exposure to air pollution during pregnancy has been linked to adverse birth outcomes, including low birth weight and preterm birth.
Recent research has uncovered a concerning link between air pollution and neurological health. Fine particulate matter and toxic gasses can enter the brain through the olfactory nerves or systemic circulation, potentially causing neuroinflammation, cognitive impairments, and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Allergies and Respiratory Infections
Air pollution can also exacerbate allergies and respiratory infections. Pollutants irritate the respiratory tract, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia. Additionally, prolonged exposure to air pollution can trigger and worsen allergies, leading to symptoms like sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes.
Sources of Air Pollution
The composition of the air may change. This is facilitated by environmental pollution, atmospheric conditions, as well as geographical location. If the air contains substances that are not naturally present in it or the concentration of certain gasses is too high, we can talk about air pollution. This means that polluted air contains less oxygen and more dust, and harmful gasses.
Atmospheric pollution can be divided into several categories. Substances that affect air pollution include dust, gasses, and aerosols. Among them are sulfur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, carbon monoxide, and cigarette smoke.
- Industrial Emissions: Industries release various pollutants into the air during manufacturing processes, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, contributes significantly to industrial air pollution.
- Transportation: Vehicles, especially those powered by diesel engines, emit substantial amounts of air pollutants. Exhaust emissions contain nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. Traffic congestion in urban areas further worsens air quality.
- Energy Production: Power plants that rely on coal combustion emit large quantities of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Although efforts have been made to transition to cleaner energy sources, many countries still heavily rely on fossil fuels for electricity generation.
- Residential Heating and Cooking: In households where solid fuels like coal, wood, and biomass are used for heating and cooking, indoor air pollution becomes a significant concern. Exposure to smoke from these sources leads to respiratory problems, especially in developing countries where access to clean cooking technologies is limited.
How to Counter the Threat
Unfortunately, it is difficult for ordinary citizens to influence air quality. To make the air really safe, you need to make serious efforts at the state level. For example, to develop green transport in cities, gradually switch to renewable energy sources and reduce industrial emissions.
Governments play a vital role in addressing air pollution through comprehensive policies and regulations. These may include setting emission standards for industries, promoting renewable energy sources, incentivizing clean transportation, and enforcing stricter regulations on vehicle emissions.
Transition to Clean Energy
Shifting from fossil fuels to cleaner and renewable energy sources is crucial in reducing air pollution. Investing in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power can significantly reduce power generation emissions and improve air quality.
Promoting Sustainable Transportation
Encouraging the use of electric vehicles and expanding public transportation systems can help reduce the number of vehicles on the road and, consequently, lower air pollution levels. Additionally, promoting cycling and walking as alternative modes of transportation can positively affect air quality and public health.
Strengthening Industrial Practices
Industries must adopt cleaner production methods and technologies to minimize their environmental impact. Implementing effective emissions control measures, improving waste management systems, and promoting the use of cleaner fuels can significantly reduce industrial air pollution.
Raising Awareness and Education
Educating the public about the health risks associated with air pollution is crucial in fostering behavior change. Awareness campaigns can encourage individuals to take steps to reduce their personal contribution to air pollution, such as using energy-efficient appliances, carpooling, and minimizing the use of aerosol products.
Human health is continuously at risk from air pollution, which has far-reaching effects beyond respiratory conditions. The harmful consequences of air pollution on neurological health, cardiovascular health, lung function, and even birth outcomes underline the need for immediate action to address this problem. Governments, businesses, and people must all work together to reduce air pollution; this requires collective effort. We can safeguard our health and build a healthier and more sustainable future for future generations by putting into place effective legislation, switching to clean energy sources, encouraging sustainable mobility, and increasing awareness.