As we mark World Environment Day on 5th June, it’s the perfect time to talk about one of the world’s biggest and most pressing health emergencies: air pollution.
Approximately 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
What’s more, 91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guidelines.
It’s figures like these that become a hot topic as we mark World Environment Day on 5th June, with this year’s theme focusing on the global issue of air pollution.
On the same day, environmentalists and representatives from all over the world will convene in China to discuss the problem and ways in which nations can collaborate to address the matter.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution happens when harmful or extreme quantities of substances including gases, particles and biological molecules are mixed into the earth’s atmosphere.
These substances can come from a variety of sources, including man-made ones such as smoke from fossil fuel power stations and factories; emissions from motor vehicles, marine vessels and aircraft; methane coming from landfills, paint fumes, hairspray and aerosol sprays and even nitrogen oxide generated by fertilised farmlands.
Natural sources like methane from animals, carbon monoxide from wildfires, volatile organic compounds from vegetation and compounds from ash particles from volcanic activities are also significant factors that contribute to air pollution.
It’s easy to ignore air pollution because, unlike water and land pollution, we don’t physically see its components. But that’s what makes it all the more dangerous.
Studies have shown that pollution in the atmosphere can significantly harm plants and living creatures.
The elements brought by the pollutants can mix into rain droplets in the clouds. When this happens, the rain becomes what we call ‘acid rain’, which can cause gradual damage to plants, tress and wildlife.
The acid rain’s nitrogen content seeps into our soil and seawater, and as a result alters their natural nutrient composition, harming the ecosystem and living organisms within it.
For years, scientists have pointed out the role of air pollution in climate change. This is largely due to the elements found in pollutants – fossil fuel emissions and aerosol use, among others – that trigger atmospheric changes worldwide.
Perhaps the most noticeable effects of air pollution are on our health. In fact, air pollution has been dubbed as the ‘silent killer’.
Simply put, the more polluted the air is, the more we breathe dangerous chemicals into our lungs.
“In general, air pollution can be categorised into two: ambient or outdoor, and household or indoor,” explains Dr Harbi Darwish, specialist, thoracic surgery at Bareen International Hospital.
According to WHO, there are 4.2 million premature deaths per year worldwide due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases, which are linked to outdoor air pollution, while 3.8 million deaths annually are attributed to indoor air pollution.
“Just some of the common diseases linked to outdoor air pollution are cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections in children,” says Dr Harbi.
“Exposure to indoor air pollutants, meanwhile, can contribute to a wide range of health conditions such as respiratory illnesses, cancer, eye problems, higher risk of burns, poisonings, musculoskeletal injuries and accidents.”
In the short run, air pollution can cause headaches, nausea, allergic reactions, asthma and emphysema. Long term, air pollution can lead to lung cancer, heart disease, and liver, kidney and nerve damage.
Beating air pollution will take a gargantuan effort because of its enormity in terms of reach and scale.
Here in the UAE, authorities have taken significant steps to address the issue. Some of these include monitoring air quality by installing high-tech sensors and filters to detect nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and ground ozone levels in public highways
Technology is playing a role too with apps like Plume Air Report and the UAE Air Quality Index by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment designed to help track and record air quality across the country.
A number of local entities from the private sector are also helping to combat air pollution.
Leading the charge is the Abu Dhabi-based developer of renewable energy sources, Masdar, with its innovations that use sustainable means to supply clean energy at home and abroad. The company aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for energy generation by utilising solar and wind energy.
Then there’s Etihad Airways, the country’s flag carrier, which aims to reduce its carbon emissions by looking at the possibility of using clean alternative fuel for its flights.
In January this year, the airline flew the world’s first commercial flight using locally produced fuel made from saltwater plants.
“Minimizing the effects of air pollution is a combined effort of government and household initiatives,” says Dr Harbi.
But as Dr Harbi stresses, minimising the effects of air pollution is a combined effort by governments and corporations as well as individuals and households.
So what can you do to prevent air pollution?
Cigarette smoke is a leading cause of indoor air pollution as are household cleaners that use harsh chemicals as these fumes can cause irritation in your nose, mouth and lungs.
Particles from candles, perfumes and craft and office supplies like paint and glue are also contributors. Instead, swap conventional versions with natural ones, or try making things like household cleaners at home instead.
It’s also recommended to replace traditional household solid fuel with lower-emission cooking stoves and cleaner fuels, and improve the energy efficiency of homes and commercial buildings through insulation and passive design principles such as natural ventilation and lighting.
Reduce the amount of pollution you produce as an individual by using public transport, cycling or walking instead of driving, turning off your car when not in use and driving an electric vehicle.
As Dr Harbi concludes: “All of these will help reduce air pollution and more importantly, help citizens become healthier and decrease chances of getting diseases.”
By Ferdinand Godinez