Last week we discussed what air pollution actually was and the ways in which we can reduce household (indoor) air pollution. This week, we examine the health implications of air pollution and what steps we can take as a society to help improve the quality of the air we breathe.
How Air Pollution Affects Our Health
Particulate matter (or PM) is the pollutant that affects people the most and it is used as a measure for air pollution. Any particles that have a diameter of 10 microns or less, have the capacity to penetrate and lodge themselves deep inside the lungs. Yet, smaller particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, are even more damaging. Not only can they lodge themselves in the lungs, they can actually penetrate the lung barrier and from there enter the blood stream. This can lead to many respiratory illnesses, but worryingly, also increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
Ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide are also responsible for causing (and certainly worsening) asthma and other respiratory conditions, such as bronchial symptoms, reduced lung function and lung inflammation.
In particular, air pollution is proving to be especially damaging to children's health. According to WHO, 14% of 5-18-year olds worldwide have asthma as a result of factors including air pollution. 543,000 children under 5 years of age die annually from respiratory diseases linked to air pollution. Even at low levels of exposure, air pollution has been found to damage children's lung function. It has also been found to negatively affect mental and motor development, as well as neurodevelopment.
Combating Ambient (Outdoor) Air Pollution
Outdoor air pollution is a problem that requires big changes, both from governments (in the form of policies), as well as changes in attitude and adapting societal habits. In order for any such change to be effective, we must firstly ensure that we are actively and comprehensively educating all members of society properly. This is not only limited to schools, but also includes making sure that resources and information are provided to the general public about steps they can take to help reduce air pollution and its effects.
The biggest ambient air pollutants are the result of road traffic and predominantly, manufacturing industries. As such, it is important that governments globally, endeavour to meet the air quality guidelines set out by WHO, to help ensure the health of all citizens. This includes providing better waste management to reduce the amount of waste being burned, as well as investing in improved energy efficiency, including greater investment in renewable energy sources. In order to help combat the danger to children more specifically and help to minimize their exposure to polluted air, WHO encourages schools and playgrounds to be built away from factories, busy roads and other major sources of air pollution.
As individuals, we can take steps to help reduce outdoor air pollution as well. We can adapt our driving habits and aim to drive less often. Instead, we can opt to take public transport where possible, or better yet, to walk. When driving, we can try to avoid driving during rush hour and limit our use of cars in particularly busy roads. We can also choose to buy electric vehicles or vehicles which have lower emissions.
Changing our buying habits and opting for cleaner technologies not only makes a positive impact upon our air quality, but it also has the potential to affect and influence government policy on a wider scale.
This week, we invite you to consider one aspect of your daily practice that you might change to help improve the air quality in your local area.
Perhaps you will endeavour to drive less? Maybe you can adapt your driving hours or route to avoid high traffic spots? Or perhaps you want to join or create your own local group to help combat air pollution?
If each one of us makes one small change, over time this can lead to improved air quality for us all.