Air pollution can be seen as one of the most severe threats to public health of the 21st century, and it seems to be getting worse. As today’s metropolitan centers are largely inescapable for many of us, this should be taken seriously and addressed adequately.
Why is air pollution bad?
Air pollution can cause several diseases and health conditions such as respiratory infections, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stroke and lung cancer. It can also contribute to other afflictions, such as difficulty in breathing and may worsen existing respiratory or cardiac conditions. In extreme cases, severe air pollution can even cause premature death.
Air pollution is a health hazard for everyone. However, young are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Constant, unmediated exposure to pollutants can have lasting, negative effects on their development.
Where does air pollution come from?
Pollution can consist of solid particles, liquid droplets and gases. So-called primary pollutants directly result from a specific source, such as exhaust pipes or factories. A good indication for being exposed to pollutants are unpleasant odors in the air. This can be from garbage, sewage, exhaust pipes or industrial processes.
The most common primary pollutant is Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which results from the burning of fossil fuels. As the burning of fossil fuels becomes more wide-spread around the world, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is steadily increasing.
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) is another significant and common pollutant. These toxic gasses can often be seen floating above cities as a brown haze. This tend to be recognizable by a sharp and biting odor.
Unlike most air pollutants, Carbon Monoxide (CO) is not detectable by smell. It is a colorless and odorless but toxic gas that can be breathed in without being irritating when breathed in. Carbon monoxide is commonly emitted from exhaust pipes and is thus especially prevalent in cities.
Other primary pollutants include Sulfur Oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and Particulate Matter (PM). Sulfur Oxides result from industrial processes and are a component of acid rain, while extended exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds can lead to leukemia.
Particulate Matter is also emitted from the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and industrial processes and can contribute to the development of heart disease, altered lung function and lung cancer.
Particulate Matter is a particularly harmful type of air pollution, as it can intrude deeply into the lungs and cause permanent DNA mutations.
Next to primary pollutants, secondary pollutants arise from the interaction of different pollutants or substances with each other. The most prevalent example of this is smog (‘smoky fog’). Smog is a toxic cocktail of the primary pollutants outlined above and others. Those are nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, smoke or particulates).
What can I do?
As long as avoiding urban areas altogether is not an option. Minimizing direct exposure is the best way to reduce the hazardous effects of being exposed to a polluted environment.