We need to talk about air pollution

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.

Words By Ferdinand Godinez

Approximately 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A staggering 91 per cent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality fails to meet WHO guidelines.

It’s figures like these that should drive conversation 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 such as gases, particulates and biological materials are mixed into the earth’s atmosphere.

These substances can come from a variety of sources, including – smoke from fossil fuel power stations and factories; emissions from motor vehicles, marine vessels and aircraft; methane coming from landfills, paint fumes, 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.

Environmental damage

One of the greatest challenges in spreading awareness of the dangers with air pollution is, unlike water and land pollution, we don’t physically see its components.

It is a mistake to draw an equivalency between visibility and potency. Studies have consistently shown that pollution in the atmosphere directly has the potential to harm and even kill living organisms.

The pollutants can end up in rain droplets in the clouds. When this happens, the rain can become what we call ‘acid rain’, which has a devastating effect on 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 and PH balance, damaging the ecosystem and the life that dwells within it.

For years, scientists have pointed out the role of air pollution in human-induced climate change. This is largely due to fossil fuel emissions and aerosol use, among others – which have the ability to trigger atmospheric change on a global level.


Health risks

It’s not just our planet and future generations that are at risk. The health of the world’s current population is in the firing line too. Air pollution is often referred to as the ‘silent killer’

“In general, air pollution can be categorised into two types: ambient/outdoor, and household/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.

“Exposure to indoor air pollutants … 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.”

Even in relatively small doses air pollution can cause headaches, nausea, allergic reactions, asthma and emphysema.


Concerted effort

Because of the scale of the air pollution problem, any resolution will take a gargantuan, consolidated effort from every corner of the world.

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 in making citizens more aware too. Apps like Plume Air Report and the UAE Air Quality Index, informed by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, are designed to help track 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 focusing on the supply of clean energy at home and abroad. The company aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by utilising renewable sources like solar and wind energy

Dr Harbi Darwish

But it’s a responsibility we all need to take on. Even in our own homes.

“Minimizing the effects of air pollution is a combined effort of government and household initiatives,” says Dr Harbi.


So what can you do to prevent air pollution?

First, quit the ciggies and the heavy duty cleaning chemicals. Cigarette smoke is a known carcinogen and harsh household cleaners can cause irritation to your nose, mouth and lungs.

Particles from candles, perfumes and craft and office supplies like paint and glue are also contributors. Try substituting these products with natural ones, or try making things like household cleaners at home instead. Apple cider vinegar is your friend.

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 – use public transport more often, get cycling or walking instead of driving, turning off your car when not in use and driving an electric vehicle.

Shop smart. Buy brands which use less packaging – and industry intensive production methods. Try to eat less meat, the cattle industry is responsible for a significant quantity of the new methane in the atmosphere.

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.”

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