From smog hanging over cities to streets filled with car emissions, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to our health, and it comes from lots of different man-made sources.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to outdoor air pollution, which is associated with serious health issues like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.
But what exactly is air pollution, and do we really need to worry? Experts explain.
What exactly is air pollution?
In simple terms, an air pollutant is any substance in the air that could cause harm. Tiny pollutants that are too small for the naked eye to see can invade our body’s defences when we breathe them in, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.
“Air pollution is made up of a number of things, such as gases and particles in the air,” explains Vanessa Smith, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
She explains there are a variety of different pollutants in the air. And while the air quality in Australia is generally considered ‘good’ by international standards, our air is still polluted on a daily basis when fuels such as coal, gas, petroleum and wood are used. A notable portion – approximately 75 per cent – of air pollution is from motor vehicle emissions.
Air pollution can also disperse widely, so it’s a myth that you can avoid it in rural areas, as you don’t necessarily have to be at the centre of the source to be affected by it.
It can affect anyone of any economic background too – in fact, some of the world’s most expensive postcodes have the highest levels of air pollution.
“Pollution can come from natural sources such as pollen and soil, but it’s often caused by emissions from vehicles (such as from petrol or diesel engines), dust from the road, construction work or burning fossil fuels,” explains Dr Kathryn Basford.
Not only is air pollution harmful to health, but it’s also bad for the environment. It has close links to climate change, as burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil releases a variety of chemicals into the atmosphere, including greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Why is it bad for your health?
On days when air pollution is particularly bad, breathing it in can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, cause shortness of breath, make asthma symptoms worse and possibly affect the heart and cardiovascular system.
Being exposed to polluted air for longer periods can cause more serious health problems too.
“There is strong scientific and medical evidence that short and long-term exposure to air pollution can negatively impact on human health by increasing the risk of morbidity and mortality,” says Dr Antonio Peña-Fernández, a senior lecturer in biomedical and medical science at De Montfort University.
“Studies have found that people that breathe contaminated air can develop different conditions including cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, and enhance the likelihood of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases or diabetes,” he says.
In the UK, Public Health England has attributed 28,000–36,000 deaths a year to long-term exposure to air pollution. And while anyone can be affected, children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to air pollution issues.
How can you protect your health from air pollution?
Knowledge is key. It’s important to regularly monitor the air pollution level around where you live and work, especially if you have asthma or a circulatory condition.
You can see the world’s air pollution in real-time here.
On high pollution days, it’s a good idea to avoid spending long periods of time outdoors – especially in areas with busy roads and heavy traffic.
“When pollution is high, I’d advise people – and particularly those with lung conditions such as asthma – to avoid exercising outdoors, particularly in the evening when the pollution has had a chance to build up,” says Dr Basford.
“Keep windows and doors closed, and keep your car windows shut, especially if you’re stuck in traffic. If you have asthma, carry an inhaler at all times and take an antihistamine if pollen levels are high.
“If you find you’re using your reliever (blue) inhaler more than three times a week, you should speak to your GP or asthma nurse about whether you need to start a preventer inhaler or increase the strength if you’re already using one.”
Pollution can make you more likely to react to your usual asthma trigger, such as house dust mites and pollen, so it’s wise to invest in special hypoallergenic fabrics around the home.
Air pollutants in Australia
Air pollution is caused by:
- natural sources such as bushfires, dust storms, sea salt and pollen
- domestic activities such as burning wood fires, including using wood heaters, fuel-powered garden equipment, and portable fuel containers
- commercial businesses such as spray painters, printers, quarries, service stations
- industrial activities such as coal mining, oil refining and power generation
- on-road motor vehicles such as buses, cars and trucks
- off-road vehicles and equipment such as dump trucks, bulldozers and marine vessels.
The effects of bushfires on people and the environment range wide and can be catastrophic.
Exposure to smoke from bushfires can:
- worsen asthma and other respiratory conditions
- cause coughing and shortness of breath
- irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
Smoke from bushfires can also contaminate water sources, such as rainwater tanks. Bushfires tend to be most common and most severe during summer and autumn.
Air pollution is something that the government will aim to tackle over the next few decades, with Australia pledging to become a carbon neutral country by 2050. As a first step, Australia has committed to reducing its total emissions by 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Under the Paris Agreement, we will have to submit progressively stronger targets every five years.
On an individual level, meanwhile, there are measures we can all take to help reduce our own carbon footprint and challenge the air pollution problem at the same time. Opt for energy-efficient light bulbs, use electricity from environmentally friendly sources where possible and keep your vehicles properly tuned. Better yet, make use of public transport or try cycling or walking to work – it’s better for your physical health and much more pleasant than getting stuck in that Monday morning traffic jam.
Do you suffer from allergies or breathing difficulties? Are you affected on high pollution days? Have you made any lifestyle changes to reduce your pollution footprint?
– With PA
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