Air pollution: why it’s killing us

By Donna Duggan

Air pollution: why it’s killing us

The World Health Organisation [WHO] recently issued a statement saying that air pollution contributed to an estimated seven million deaths, or one death in eight, worldwide in 2012. This staggering figure is the result of illness caused or exacerbated by a range of sources, from car fumes to coal heating fires.

Air pollution is a mixture of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe such as fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and noxious gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and chemical vapours.

Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s public and environmental health chief said air pollution is now the biggest environmental health problem and that it’s affecting everyone, not just people living in developing countries.

Numerous studies have shown increases in deaths and hospitalisations when there are high concentrations of smog in places like Los Angeles (pictured above) for example. The biggest pollution-related killers were heart disease, stroke, pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Air pollution also contributes to other serious illness such as asthma and infections and has also been seen to play a role in high blood pressure and diabetes.

WHO has advised that the regions which are hardest hit by air pollution include Southeast Asia, which includes India and Indonesia, and the Western Pacific, ranging from China and South Korea to Japan and the Philippines.

When it last released an estimate for deaths related to air pollution, in 2008, WHO estimated that deaths from outdoor pollution where approximately 1.3 million worldwide, while the number blamed on indoor pollution was 1.9 million.

According to Carlos Dora, the WHO’s public and environmental health coordinator, countries need to rethink policies and shift towards cleaner power sources, more efficient management of energy demand, improved transport policies and improve the auto industry.

France recently attempted to improve air quality by introducing restrictions on car use and the temporarily scrapping public transport fees in Paris.

While the problem needs to be tackled at a global level, everyone has a responsibility for protecting this shared, vital resource. One of the most important things you can do to improve air quality is to reduce damaging emissions. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Leave your car at home whenever possible. Use public transport, join a car pool, ride a bike. Even if you just leave the car at home one day a week you will be making a difference.
  • Don’t leave the car running. If you are going to be stopped for more than ten seconds, turn the car off.
  • Conserve energy at home. Most of our energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels [oil, gas, coal] and it’s the emissions from these fuels that are the primary source of carbon dioxide.
  • You know the drill – buy products with less packaging, use energy-efficient light bulbs, avoid using a clothes dryer, turn off your television and computer when they’re not in use. Use your energy wisely.
  • Plant a tree, or few. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and they are also natural air filters.


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