Air pollution: should we worry?

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air pollutionOver the past few weeks, air pollution has become a hot topic, and this time the concern is not for the environment – it is for our health. Worries over the toxicity of the air we breathe have been revived after it was uncovered that Volkswagen’s new cars emit more nitrogen oxide than their unrealistic factory tests reported. Air quality, it seems, remains an important issue even in the 21st century.

Atmospheric pollution poses a real health risk, not just to those who are already ill or have weak immune systems, but to everyone. The World Health Organisation reported in 2014 that nearly seven million people die annually due to air pollution. Ninety percent of these are in the developing world. In London alone almost 50,000 people experience premature deaths due to prolonged exposure to air pollution. This is largely as a result of solid particulates and the gas nitrogen dioxide. Both of these pollutants become dangerous when found in high atmospheric concentrations.

Particulates which have a ten micrometre diameter or less are especially dangerous to humans, as they can become lodged within the lungs, and lead to both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, in addition to lung cancer, regardless of whether people are predisposed to said conditions. Air pollution also has short term effects, such as dry throat and sore eyes, or an increase in the symptoms of lung conditions and asthma.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, the other main air pollutant, are increasing. The proportion of nitrogen dioxide to nitrogen monoxide rose from 5-7% in 1997 to 15-16% in 2009, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This is partly due to the rise in diesel cars during the mid-1990s. Car manufacturer lobby groups swayed the European Commission to favour diesel vehicles over the far more common petrol cars in Europe, as diesel was praised for its relatively low carbon emissions (15% lower than petrol) at a time when reducing carbon emissions was becoming a priority for governments. Despite producing four times the nitrogen dioxide emissions of petrol and 22 times the emission of particulates, diesel was kept at lower prices and diesel car owners enjoyed reduced taxes. Only now are the implications of this becoming clear, as is the need for such impacts to be minimised.

Preventing air pollution, however, is difficult, and would involve major social, cultural and economic changes. According to the HRAPIE Project (Health risks of air pollution in Europe) run by the WHO, some of the largest anthropological emission sources in 2013 were road transport, industry and agriculture. These all come into our lives every day, as we drive to the shops, use mass manufactured goods and eat food grown all over the world. They are the driving causes of air pollution, and they are difficult to avoid.

Despite the legal guidelines in place to reduce air pollution in Europe, it is hard to stop emitting pollutants in high levels, as London in particular has shown. The WHO declared that particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less must not exceed levels of 50µg/m3 every 24 hours. This measure is not unreasonable, considering such levels can still lead to a 8.6 month reduction in life expectancy in many European cities. The target, however, remains a distant dream: within the first three weeks of monitoring nitrogen dioxide emissions, London used up its annual allowance.

Illegal levels of air pollution are not uncommon, and when such high levels of nitrogen dioxide are considered in air pollution fatalities, the deaths in London alone amount to almost 50,000 people each year. Previous statistics show lower figures, as the impacts of nitrogen dioxide on the population were not thought to be of much consequence and have only become apparent with emerging technologies.

It’s not certain that this will change soon, but environmentalists remain hopeful. Air pollution is becoming a more widely known issue, and people are realising the huge impact that it currently has, and will continue to have, on their lives. In addition to this, intergovernmental organisations are implementing laws and guidelines to reduce emissions, especially those of particulates and nitrogen dioxide, alongside reducing carbon emissions. Ideally, in less than a century there will be no articles about air pollution so harmful that it damages human health, because it will simply have ceased to be a problem.

Photograph: David Leo Veksler via Flickr

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