Seven million people die from air pollution every year. It has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. What is it, how does it work, and what is being done to reduce it?
Is air pollution the same as climate crisis?
No. When people talk about climate crisis, they are talking about the effects of rising temperatures on the Earth’s climate: its seasons, weather patterns, natural disasters and so on. Air pollution is about the quality of the air we breathe.
What is causing it?
Air pollution is caused by many of the same things that cause climate change. For example, burning wood or fossil fuels does not just release greenhouses gases that lead to global warming — it also releases particulates into the air. Now, a new study has found that cooking meals using gas flames also releases harmful particulates.
These are tiny particles that get stuck in your lungs and damage your health. Many greenhouse gases are also toxic to breathe in large amounts.
So air pollution is pretty bad for us?
That is putting it mildly. Last year, a study found that people over the age of 50, in London, were 40% more likely to get dementia if they lived in an area with lots of air pollution.
In 2017, a global report on air pollution said that it kills 7.4 million people per year, costs trillions of dollars, and “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”.
Deaths from all forms of pollution come to around nine million per year, easily outstripping those from tobacco smoking and malaria. The study’s lead author called it “the most underrated health problem in the world”.
Yikes. Who is most at risk?
Poor countries suffer the highest levels of air pollution, and the most deaths. This is not just a human tragedy. It also slows down the economic growth of those countries and makes everyday life more difficult. In Delhi in 2017, the smog became so thick that five million children were told to stay home from school. Meanwhile, flights were cancelled and factories temporarily closed.
However, air pollution affects everyone, rich and poor. In London, one of the developed world’s wealthiest cities, around 40,000 deaths are linked to air pollution each year.
What is being done?
Luckily, many of the policies being introduced to tackle climate change, such as converting to renewable energies, will also help to clean up the air.
Meanwhile, many countries are rolling out specific air pollution policies. The UK Government has raised taxes on older diesel cars, and is investing £220 million in a clean air fund. In addition, London and Oxford are both hoping to ban polluting cars from certain areas in the next 10 years.
Is it enough?
Only time will tell. The production of pollutants has fallen in the UK, but some say that the country is still not doing enough to make air safe to breathe.
- Are you worried about air pollution?
- Create a poster which raises awareness about air pollution. Illustrate it and label it.
- Greenhouses gases
- Gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), which help to trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and lead to global warming.
- Small invisible particles. The most harmful of these are 2.5 micrometres or smaller. (A micrometre is one-millionth of a metre.)
- Not seen as important enough.
- A city in India.
- A mixture of “smoke” and “fog”. It is formed when pollution reacts with sunlight and the air is toxic to breathe.
- A source that does not run out, such as wind or sunlight.
- Giving or spending money, with the idea of getting something back.