A growing issue around the world is the contamination of air by pollutants due to human environmental interaction. Increasingly, air pollution is evolving into a major public health problem in countries like India and China.
The root of most air pollution is energy use and production. Today's fossil fuel based energy system releases gases and chemicals into the air. Not only does this air pollution contribute to climate change but it is also exacerbated by it.
“Air pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and methane raises the earth’s temperature,” says John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project, part of the Climate and Clean Energy program at NRDC. “Another type of air pollution is then worsened by that increased heat: Smog forms when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation.” Climate change also increases the production of allergenic air pollutants including mold and pollen.
Poor air quality kills people. Worldwide, bad outdoor air caused an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016, about 90 percent of them in low and middle income countries, according to the World Health Organization. Indoor smoke is also an ongoing health threat to the 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes by burning biomass, kerosene, and coal on a daily basis.
Air pollution has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases such as asthma. In the U.S. nearly 134 million people, over 40 percent of the population, are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, according to American Lung Association estimates.
Smog and Soot
The two most prevalent types of air pollution are a direct result of burning fossil fuels. Smog or ground-level ozone occurs when combustion reaction emissions react due to sunlight. Soot is a form of particulate matter consisting of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens that float in the air as gas or solids.
The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines—anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gas, or natural gas,” Walke says. The tiniest airborne particles in soot, whether they’re in the form of gas or solids, are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even lead to death.
Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs, especially of people who work or exercise outside, children, and senior citizens. For people who have asthma or allergies it is only worse as these extra pollutants only intensify their symptoms and can trigger asthma attacks.
These include chemicals which are deadly or severe even in small amounts of which the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or in the case of benzene, found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene is classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, and can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also in air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn. Mercury, another dangerous element, affects the central nervous system.
By trapping the earth’s heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures and are reminiscent of all the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and increasing transmission of infectious diseases. According to an EPA study in 2014, carbon dioxide was responsible for 81 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and methane made up 11 percent. “Carbon dioxide comes from combusting fossil fuels, and methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including the large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling,” Walke says. “We emit far larger amounts of carbon dioxide, but methane is significantly more potent, so it’s also very destructive.” Another class of greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat.
Mitigating Air Pollution
Reducing Air Pollution
''The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and harmful effects of climate change,” Walke says. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation. For driving, choose cars that get better miles per gallon of gas or choose an electric car.” You can also transition to cleaner power by requesting your power provider to supply your electricity by wind or solar. Buying food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the country. And perhaps most important, “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says. And, Environa is doing just that, we strongly support clean power businesses like SolarFlair, a local solar panel retailer seeking to decarbonize the energy sector.
How to Protect Your Health
“When you see in the newspaper or hear on the weather report that pollution levels are high, it may be useful to limit the time when children go outside or you go for a jog,” Walke says. Generally, ozone levels tend to be lower in the morning.
When you do exercise outside, stay as far as you can from heavily trafficked roads. Then shower and wash your clothes to remove fine particles.
If the air quality is bad, stay inside with windows closed.
Wear sunscreen. When ultraviolet radiation comes through the weakened ozone layer, it can cause skin damage and skin cancer.
Monitoring Air Quality
A major issue that air pollution creates is constant, accurate measurement of pollutant concentrations. To solve this problem and better quantify humans' exposure to PM10 and PM2.5, NASA and CIT are launching the MAIA Investigation to observe our atmosphere from space. With this data on air quality, the project team will combine preexisting health records to calculate specific health risk ratios in locations with the most severe air pollution. Planned to launch in 2022, the MAIA Satellite will greatly improve our knowledge of particulate matter its health risk. This type of new research will help spread awareness about air pollution and save thousands, if not millions of lives worldwide.
Environa is also launching a project to monitor air quality on a daily basis. We will be detecting the concentrations of various pollutants including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, particulate matter, and other volatile organic compounds in the air. The data we collect will have a live feed on our website with the hope that people will see trends in air quality and act accordingly to protect their health.