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Air pollution: Know your enemy

MD Staff

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Sometimes you can’t even see it, but air pollution is everywhere.

Perhaps you think that air pollution doesn’t affect you because you don’t live in a city shrouded in smog. You are most likely wrong. Statistically, nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization safe levels. This means that with every breath, you are sucking in tiny particles that attack your lungs, heart and brain. For millions of people across the globe, this is causing a host of problems – illness, lower IQs and death chief among them.

We can’t stop breathing. But we can do something about the quality of our air, and global action is growing at all levels. To have any chance of truly clearing the air, however, we need to know our enemy better and what we can do to defeat it.

What is air pollution and where does it come from?

Air pollution is broken down into ambient (outdoor) air pollution and indoor air pollution. This pollution comes from many sources, the majority of them a result of human activity:

  • the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal to generate electricity for homes and businesses, or petrol and diesel to power our cars, buses, ships and planes
  • industrial processes, particularly from the chemical and mining industries
  • agriculture, which is a major source of methane and ammonia
  • waste treatment and management, particularly landfills
  • dirty indoor cooking and heating systems, a major problem in the developing world
  • volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes

These sources spew out a range of substances including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground level ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead – all of which are harmful to human health.

Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to tiny, invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter, which can be as small as a molecule. These particles are clumps of poison, containing anything from black carbon (soot), to sulphates to lead. The smallest particles are the deadliest: PM2.5 particles, which are 2.5 microns or less in diameter, and PM10, which are 10 microns or less in diameter. These tiny killers bypass your body’s defences and lodge in your lungs, bloodstream and brain.

How much of this pollution we breathe in is dependent on many factors, such as access to clean energy for cooking and heating, the time of day and the weather. Rush hour is an obvious source of local pollution, but air pollution can travel long distances, sometimes across continents on international weather patterns. Nobody is safe.

What is air pollution doing to us?

Air pollution has been called a major global health epidemic, causing one in nine of all deaths. It also has massive negative impacts on climate change and economies.

Health

In 2016, PM2.5 exposure reduced average global life expectancy at birth by approximately one year.

Around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers attributable to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution accounts for:

  • 25 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17 per cent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 16 per cent of all deaths from stroke
  • 15 per cent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 8 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Air pollution doesn’t just kill, however. It also contributes to other illnesses, hampers development and causes mental health problems.

One study found that ambient PM2.5 contributed to 3.2 million cases of diabetes in 2016.

Research from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development in young children – with lifelong implications. An estimated 17 million babies under one year old live in areas where air pollution is six times higher than safe limits.

Other studies have linked air pollution to lower intelligence levels, with the average impact equivalent to one lost year of education, and to an increased risk of dementia, with those living closest to major traffic arteries up to 12 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

Economy

If you are lucky enough to not suffer the negative health impacts of air pollution, it can still hit you in the pocket. Air pollution creates a burden on healthcare systems, which costs taxpayers money.

Air pollution from energy production in the U.S. caused at least US$131 billion in damage to its economy, including increased healthcare costs, in 2011.

One Oxford University study found that air pollution from cars and vans cost society 6 billion pounds per year.

The European Environment Agency found that emissions from 14,000 industrial facilities in Europe cost society and the economy up to 189 billion euros in 2012.

Without action, the costs will rise. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are projected to be US$18-25 trillion in 2060. In addition, the costs of pain and suffering from illness are estimated at around US$2.2 trillion by 2060.

Climate

Air pollution doesn’t just impact human health and economic growth. Many of the pollutants also cause global warming. Take black carbon, which is produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves. Black carbon is deadly, but it is also a short-lived climate pollutant. If we were to reduce the emissions of such pollutants, we could slow global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades.

Methane, a large percentage of which comes from agriculture, is another culprit. Methane emissions contribute to ground-level ozone, which causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. It is also a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide – its impact is 34 times greater over a 100-year period, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Where is air pollution worst?

Air pollution is a problem across the globe, but it disproportionately affects people living in developing nations. For example, the 3.8 million people who die each year from indoor air pollution are overwhelmingly from countries where people living in poverty are forced to cook, or heat their homes, with dirty fuels in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

According to the World Health Organization’s air quality database, 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. In high-income countries, the proportion is 40 per cent.

Delhi, India and Cairo, Egypt have the worst PM10 pollution levels out of the world’s megacities (over 14 million people), but Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico and Turkey all have cities in the top-ten list of most-polluted places.

You can find out how your city is doing here.

What is being done about air pollution?

A global movement to address air pollution is growing. BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 80 million citizens.

By instituting policies and programmes to curb transport and energy emissions and to promote the use of clean energy, cities are proving to be focal points where change that improves the lives of the most people possible is happening. From Accra to Mexico City, local governments are implementing plans to improve air quality. And change is happening. The World Health Organization in 2018 found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.

The rise of renewable energy is also set to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year.

What can I do?

We are all part of the problem. Business, public buildings and households account for around half of all PM2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions. But this means we are all part of the solution. By making small changes to our lives, we can all play our part in clearing the air.

For instance, by reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, individuals can contribute to cutting harmful methane emissions. There is a wide range of other areas where people can make a difference when it comes to reducing air pollution.

Manage waste

Compost food and garden items. Recycle non-organic trash if available. Reuse grocery bags and dispose of remaining trash by local collection. Never burn trash, as this contributes directly to air pollution.

Cook and heat clean

Burning coal and biomass (e.g. wood) contributes to indoor air pollution when used for cooking and outdoor air pollution when used for heating. Check efficiency ratings for home heating systems and cookstoves to use models that save money and protect health.

Move mindfully

Use public transportation, cycle or walk. Consider switching to a hybrid or electric if you must drive. Diesel vehicles, particularly older ones, are large contributors of black carbon, which are carcinogenic for health and damaging to our climate.

Rethink your energy use

Turn off lights and electronics not in use. Use energy-efficient equipment. Rooftop solar panels may be an option to generate hot water and power.

Call for change

Call on local leaders to adopt national air quality standards that meet WHO guidelines. Support policies that strengthen emissions standards and provide incentives for purchase of cleaner vehicles, low-energy appliances and energy-efficient housing.

Watch our short animations for more information.

>I don’t drive during rush hour

>I walk to work

>I drive an electric vehicle

>I compost my waste

>I recycle my waste

>I don’t burn waste

>I use renewable energy to power my home

>I use clean energy to cook

>I check my air pollution levels

>I turn off lights and electronics not in use

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Green Planet

COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity

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The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.

Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.

The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.

According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.

Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.

Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.

He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.

The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.

It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.

The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.

Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.

Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.

“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.

According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.

Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.

Why human absence prospers nature?

Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”

Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.

Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.

Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?

Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not.  It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm.  If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is. 

The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names.  The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted.  In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.

Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving. 

So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far.  The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August.  It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.  Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.  

In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies.  September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed.  September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet. 

If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier.  Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off.  Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.

Europe too is warmer.  Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent.  Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever. 

The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day.  It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years.  And then it happened again.  Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England.  Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses.  In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters.  Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain.  The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours. 

The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity.  In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future. 

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Green Planet

The lone woman in the ice

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Photo credit: Varda Sharma

As Dr. Madhubala Chinchalkar walked in for the interview, the panel asked,” You will be the only woman in the team, is that alright for you?”. She replied, “That’s not even a problem.”

Antarctica, the fifth largest continent in the world with a huge wall of ice shelf surrounding it can be described in all superlatives, the country with coldest, highest, windiest, driest weather. Breaking the mould, Dr. Madhubala brings us a real story in the documentary film named, “And the Skua Returned  Early” where she narrates her journey of surviving all odds and completing her expedition in Antarctica as the medical professional.

Isolation, confinement, very dry air, no access to supplies, danger, extreme weather conditions, the monotony of everyday life. Except for lack of gravity, living in Antarctica is the closest thing to a long journey to Mars, for example. This time of year — our summer, their winter — there is sunlight for only three hours a day, and it’s like being on the moon, and just as isolated

While there is no native population on Antarctica, there are 40 permanent research stations, with an average of 1,000 people living there year-round (around 25 people per station), braving harsh winds and an inhuman cold 

As Antarctica is so difficult to get to, once you arrive, you can’t leave — until the next ship/airdrop comes six to eight months later. You are completely isolated from February to October, when the cold and the dark make flights too dangerous to attempt.

Dr. Madhubala describes her eight-month long expedition to Antarctica as a spiritual experience of which she became a part. On clear winter nights, seeing Southern lights better known as Aurora Australis from  behind an ice shelf often rolling waves of green, blue, red like giant reels of fairy dust and painting over the head while spreading to fill the sky is a spectacular scene which will stay forever captured in her mind camera. Silvery moon light on glistening white snow reflecting all around is a sight to behold. The naturally occurring ice caves are the mysteries that mother nature unfolds where the wall is decorated with delicate ice crystals. The ice is so vast, it stretched all the way to the horizon and continued to extend for hours as they walked to explore it. 

In summer nature’s magic touch creates a miracle as plant and animal life blossoms. The team habits in the Indian research station-Maitreyi which stays busy in summer. The work stretches from geological survey, ozone study, geomagnetism, ice core drilling, recording new climatic history to observing plant and animal life.

It’s a mix of emotions as the sun sets welcoming winter. It’s exciting for the winter to start. There’s also a little bit of trepidation too because it’s unknown: How are you going to react without the sun 24/7 for six months? What’s it going to be like working in extreme cold conditions that you really haven’t seen up to that point yet? There’s just a lot of unknowns, so it’s both exciting and a little bit frightening.

Planes with supplies stop flying to Antarctica during the winter, as it’s physically too cold for them to fly when the temperatures plummet to minus 40 F. Fuel freezes to slush, skis can stick to the ice and the hydraulics begin to falter in the harsh conditions. What the team has on hand starting in February is what they’ll have to rely on to last them through the dark, brutal winter.

She remembers as she pens down an instance where Dr. Madhubala was advised by a fellow team member that she should stay indoors and do the domestic work like cooking rather than going outside and taking generator readings. She smiled as she braved the harsh temperature, took more accurate readings than her peers, proving that there is no such thing that women cannot do. She is an example of how you can break a glass ceiling even without making a noise! Her advice for people is always to explore their options and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Keep your eyes open, being open to taking some risk is great too and will take you places you didn’t know exist

The climate is so cold, windy and harsh there, one immediately feels like an intruder. Antarctica is not made for humans, and rightfully so as there should be one place on this planet that we cannot put our sticky, oily handprints all over. But we are doing just that, even from our comfortable homes in temperate climes, and the ice in Antarctica is waking up and shifting in response. The central message that Dr. Madhubala tries to convey is, how much impact global warming is having on Antarctica. You might not feel the effect around you right now, but it isn’t inevitable.

Global sea levels will also rise, because the Earth’s finite reserves of freshwater that were once stored as ice on the land, end up melting into the ocean instead. 

The term “climate change” is a bit misleading, because what’s happening is about so much more than rising temperatures — it’s about how all the different parts of the Earth’s system are being affected by the climate. We need to protect the last naturally occurring delicately balanced ecosystem of Antarctica isn’t our responsibility but a ticket to live on the planet a little longer

We’re all dancing among the icebergs now, and we have a choice: we can try to hold onto the futile dream of returning to the way things once were, or we can talk, think and prepare for how we’ll live on this new Earth

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