Miscellaneous

A Poisonous World Has Unpolluted Air Become a Rarity

In a world replete with myriad grievous diseases, little attention is paid to the diseases caused by air pollution that is wreaking havoc across the globe – so much so that on average, global life expectancy is being cut by 1.8 years per person. A report brought forth by the World Economic Forum (WEF) puts the figure of the years an average person in Europe is stripped off due to air pollution at 2.


 


The reason why, as per the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.2 million people die every year due to poisonous air and 3.8 million as a result of ‘household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels’ is because 91% of the world’s population lives in areas where the quality of air exceeds the limits set by the WHO for any air to be considered unpolluted – meaning that 9 out of ten of us are breathing potentially life-threatening air.
This has made air pollution the world’s top killer: overhauling smoking that on average is responsible for cutting global life expectancy by 1.6 years per person. More shockingly, the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) has established that in some parts of India, people’s lives could be cut down by 11 years on average owing to air pollution, thereby making life expectancy in those parts sink to around 58 from the overall figure of 69.


The reason why, as per the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.2 million people die every year due to poisonous air and 3.8 million as a result of ‘household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels’ is because 91% of the world’s population lives in areas where the quality of air exceeds the limits set by the WHO for any air to be considered unpolluted – meaning that 9 out of ten of us are breathing potentially life-threatening air.


Poisonous air has more critical consequences for kids under five – having a share of 630 million in the world’s population of whom nearly 70,000 die each year – than it has for adults. It harms their brains, leaving millions of them condemned to a life of ill health. Poisonous air has engulfed half the kids’ population in the developed countries and nearly 98% of that of the developing ones. One reason why kids are suffering is because with each breath they ‘take in more air per unit of body weight than adults’. The lower the body weight, the higher the repercussions of taking in the fine particles: particles thinner than a single human hair that conveniently travel from the lungs to the brain, harming membranes which protect it from noxious substances. Also, the dosage required to harm a brain that is developing is much lower than that required for one that has developed. Each year we lose a probable demographic vantage in thousands long before it becomes aware of the world it has been brought to.
When these slender particles that even the nose can’t filter enter into our bloodstream, they cause inflammation, and both tightening and hardening of the artery walls. It results in incrementing the blood pressure and creating chances of a heart attack.
Taking in poisonous air also has its effects on the heart. It impacts the heart’s ability to ‘conduct electrical signals’, and in the ensuing circumstances, makes its rhythms become ‘irregular’.
With the world developing, nations becoming richer and rural areas urbanising progressively, it isn’t our health but our environment that makes the utmost sacrifice and pays the highest price – and this, seriatim, bears upon the former. It is losing its greenery and the fresh, untainted air it once had. This, as improbable as it may sound, also has immense repercussions on our happiness. Research has proven that the installation of power plants purporting at lessening air pollution has brought happiness to those that have been affected by it the most. Besides, poor mental health also has its effects an individual’s behaviour making it more abrasive.
The inaccessibility of parks and recreational areas where one can take a breather, take in fresh air and leave behind, however temporarily, the topsy-turvyness, compounds our mental health’s predicament. This, on top of the effects inhaling poisonous air has on our health, should have had long set off the alarm bells. Unfortunately, none has, none seems to.
Figures for Pakistan don’t seem any good either. The United Nations (UN) estimated that in 2015, the number of deaths that occurred in Pakistan because of air pollution was one of the highest in the world. An index that takes into account ‘age-standardized deaths per 100,000 people attributable to air pollution’ produced by the Health Effects Institute: State of Global Air 2018, has the figure for Pakistan as of 2016 set at 207, only second in the world after Afghanistan with 406.
Declared a ‘public health emergency’, smog has in most places across the country become the ‘fifth season’. It has been recorded in the Air Quality Index (AQI) that the figures for Pakistan’s biggest city Lahore range on average from 100-500. It sounds grievous given the fact that an AQI reading even only a shade above 300 is dubbed ‘hazardous’. Figures ranging from 201-300 are ‘very unhealthy’; from 151-200 ‘unhealthy’; while those from 101-150 are considered ‘unhealthy [only] for sensitive groups’.
A report stated that from of January 1 to November 25, 2018, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad saw only three, four and 24 days of ‘good quality air’ respectively. Unpolluted air is indeed becoming a rarity, and an utterly grave one at that.
Air pollution has its kinds that need to be discussed, albeit in short. The kind that man doesn’t play his part in, and hence is not responsible for, is produced by volcanic eruptions and wildfires. But this is only part of the problem. A lion’s share of the air pollution – of which there are different types – that is costing us millions of lives every year is produced by human activities.


With the world developing, nations becoming richer and rural areas urbanising progressively, it isn’t our health but our environment that makes the utmost sacrifice and pays the highest price – and this, seriatim, bears upon the former. 


The fossil fuels that we burn to produce energy release greenhouse gases into the air in the process. These emanations, some of which are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gasses, catch heat from the sun in earth’s atmosphere, ensuing in a drastic rise in global temperatures. Resultantly, a cycle is created where air pollution contributes to climate change that, subsequently, creates higher temperatures. The latter, in turn, intensify some kinds of air pollution.
One such is the increment in smog that is caused by high temperatures and increased levels of ultraviolent radiation. Smog is a type of air pollution that reduces visibility and has serious health effects on the human eye and respiratory system. Besides, it is also extremely harmful for plants.
Smog is further divided into two categories: sulphurous and photochemical. The former is made up of chemical compounds called sulphur oxides that result when fossil fuels, say coal, are burnt, while the latter that is also known as ground level ozone, is produced due to the reaction between sunlight, nitrogen oxides produced by car exhausts, coal power plants and factory emissions and volatile organic compounds released from gasoline, paint and many cleaning solvents. 
Toxic pollutants, another type of air pollution, are comprised of chemicals such as mercury, lead, dioxins and benzine. They are released during gas or coal combustion, waste incineration or burning of gasoline.
Apart from its hostile effects on the environment, toxic air pollution can cause serious health problems, say, cancer, reproductive complications and birth defects.
This leaves us with nothing but herculean challenges, perhaps more than we can think of. ‘The right to clean air is a human right’; is what has been contended in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covent on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and also embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But it hasn’t been ‘high on the political agenda’ to date.
Smog and greenhouse gases can be reduced by decreasing the use of fossil fuels in transportation, manufacturing and electricity generation. That will require ways of transportation to be altered altogether. Governments should encourage their respective citizens to ride bicycles, and should also provide the required facilities, such as constructing bicycle tracks, and making the public’s access to owning bikes easier and cheaper. It is a fact that the better the system of public transportation, the more compelled will people be to travel therein. Facilitating public transportation will reduce the number of cars used, whose mere 25% in most countries cause more than 70% of their entire air pollution.
There should be, as has already been implemented in developed countries, legislative actions introduced in developing countries making it a prerequisite for car owners to have their vehicles regularly checked to help relinquish any pollution the emissions might as well be causing. Strict traffic rules should be introduced to not let untested cars, or cars that create fumes dangerous for the environment, on the roads.
Also, technology to help absorb the emissions, such as greenhouse gases and smog, should be introduced on an emergency basis. There are many companies coming up with such technologies, and this, despite entailing a heavy price tag, will prove of more significance than effectuating new industries.
Awareness needs to be raised about the disadvantages of overconsumption of electricity. Since it (in most countries) is produced by burning coal that, sequentially, produces toxic gases that cause air pollution, governments need to step to the fore and make its saving a norm.
Tree plantation, as naïve as it sounds given how erstwhile it is, will always remain a key to minifying air pollution and effectuating more oxygen for humans to take in. It is a misfortune that theoretically there have been innumerable things done and trees planted, but practically, it is the other way around.
That said, none of these decisions, in all likelihood, could be implemented if entrusted to incompetent people. They demand competency and will on part of the authorities to bring about a change at large to ameliorate the environment and rid it of all the ills we have made it a victim of. Incompetency entails devastation. The world can’t afford it anymore.


The writer is a Research Officer at Emerging Policymakers’ Institute (EPI), an Islamabad based youth-led think tank.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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