Only the witches in Macbeth could truly appreciate many of our most polluted cities. “Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air …” was their chant. Well, the witches might have enjoyed it. But, sadly, air pollution affects health to a catastrophic extent.
Air quality in my home city has plummeted over the past few days with the onset of December. And I can vouch firsthand for how air pollution affects health. A walk in the centre ushers in unpleasant symptoms: wheezing, tightness in the chest, headaches, feelings of nausea and coughing. Meeting some friends for lunch the other day – after a long uphill climb – I kept having to excuse myself because of coughing fits.
Every day bring stories about how air pollution is reaching record levels. And yet it’s business as usual as we dive into our cars and speed along already putrid highways. All this despite data proving that air pollution affects our health dramatically. An alarming fact is that 80 percent of the world’s urban population now live in cities that exceed the World Health Organisation’s standards for air pollution.
Cities are, of course, the worst offenders because most pollutants are emitted from factories and car exhausts. On a recent trip to the seaside in southern Europe and to the countryside I felt a lot better. But for most of us – unless we are lucky enough to regularly visit a zone of superior air quality – we’re stuck in the big smoke. And urban air pollution affects our health in so many ways.
A slow kill
Studies show that the fast-growing cities of Asia and Africa are the worst. But don’t get all smug if you live in Europe or North America – your health is also taking a constant pummeling in certain cities. Turkey is a particular black spot, occupying 8 of the top 10 most polluted European cities. If you exclude Turkey from the European map, then Tetovo in Macedonia is offender number one. The worst black spots in the US are in California despite some sterling efforts to address the issue over the past 50 years.
So what exactly is in the air of the dirtiest cities? Most of us know that air pollutions affects our health. But why does it take such a toll on us? It’s a slow kill, over-burdening our heart and lungs, forcing them to work harder to supply the body with oxygen. In the worst scenarios, it leads to aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness. Admit it – you feel it as soon as you go out on the worst days, the sense that the air is unclean and wreaking havoc on your system. And that’s no surprise – you’re fighting a multi-pronged attack from various pollutants.
Nasty foreign particles
Primary air pollutants (PMs) are those released directly into the atmosphere from vehicle exhausts or chimneys – a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. There are various ways to gauge their size but they are all easily inhaled. Then there’s sulfur dioxide (SO2), a pungent colourless gas emitted by power stations, not to mention nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – emitted from vehicles, shipping, and industry – that is largely responsible for that ominous brown haze that envelops polluted cities.
Secondary air pollutants, by contrast, are those that form in the atmosphere through oxidation and reactions between primary air pollutants. All constitute air pollution that affects our health.
Who is most at risk?
Most young people probably ignore the effects of air pollution. Sadly, most of us don’t give much thought to anything until it’s too late. We smoke too much, believing that lung cancer will only affect others. We over-drink and assume that our livers will fend off the onslaught. We defer that brisk walk on the basis that we just don’t have time.
Similarly, when we go outside, we’re too captivated by our phones and music to notice the yellowish-brown haze on the horizon. We don’t even bother to think what that winter fog is actually composed of. We like to think we’re immortal and avoid thinking about how air pollution affects health. But gradually our health WILL suffer; walking along that polluted street will be that much harder and we will call in sick at work more frequently.
Numerous studies have shown that air pollution will exacerbate the conditions of those who already have pulmonary disease. The toll it exacts on our health is enormous, leading to impaired lung capacity and decreased lung function, not to mention huge penalties in the workplace and added social costs. A recent study by the World Bank found that dirty air costs the world more than five trillion dollars annually in terms of lost work days and welfare costs. So air pollution not only affects our health – it is also a costly environmental blight.
Sadly, those with heart disease or breathing disorders such as asthma and emphysema are those most affected. For them, poor air quality can prove lethal. For some, whose hearts are already overstrained by obesity and poor lifestyle choices, filthy air can be the final blow. On days when the air quality is particularly poor people may choose simply to stay indoors, shun certain activities or … just brave it, risking further health problems.
A pressing world health problem
Obviously, urgent action is required to address air pollution, especially in the filthiest cities. Gradually as we come to appreciate the way air pollution affects health – and understand how it happens – the pressure on governments to implement better controls will grow. Meanwhile every year, worldwide, 7 million people die due to the consequences of air pollution.
And supposedly civilised regions, such as Europe and North America, are also badly affected. We can, of course, mitigate the way air pollution affects health by circumventing the most polluted main thoroughfares. Governments could provide more information on air quality, offering pedestrians a low-pollution alternative route. Or they could copy Delhi’s example of banning large diesel cars from entering the city centre.
But is all this a case of too little, too late? And, sadly, we cannot avoid the onset of winter, one of the worst seasons for overall air pollution.