Beating air pollution | Daily News

Beating air pollution

The environment is very much in the news, thanks to what humans have done to alter it in so many ways. Our planet is changing before our very eyes as a result of the callous way in which we have treated the environment. Climate Change and Global warming are two terms used to describe these changes, which may make the planet virtually inhospitable in a couple of centuries. From plastic waste to extinction of flora and fauna, there is a whole raft of other issues as well.

The United Nations, aware that the protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue, has designated today (June 5) as World Environment Day. Since it began in 1974, it has grown to become a global platform for public outreach celebrated in more than 100 countries.

The World Environment Day is organised around a theme that focuses attention on a particularly pressing environmental concern. The theme for 2019, “Beat Air Pollution,” is a call to action call to combat this global crisis. Chosen by this year’s host, China, where air pollution is a very serious issue, this year’s topic invites all to consider how we can change our everyday lives to reduce the amount of air pollution and thwart its contribution to global warming and its effects on health.

Understanding the different types of pollution, and how it affects our health and environment will help us take steps towards improving the air quality. You cannot see it, but air pollution is everywhere. According to the WHO, nine out of 10 people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed WHO’s safe levels.

Air pollution is caused by several factors. The main source of household air pollution is the indoor burning of fossil fuels, wood and other biomass-based fuels to cook, heat and light homes. Around four million deaths are caused by indoor air pollution each year, the vast majority of them in the developing world.

In many countries, energy production is a leading source of air pollution. Coal-burning power plants are a major contributor, while diesel generators are a growing concern. The global transport sector accounts for almost 25 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Transport emissions have been linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths yearly. There are two major sources of air pollution from agriculture: livestock, which produces methane and ammonia, and the burning of agricultural waste. Around 24 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide come from agriculture, forestry and other use of lands. Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and black carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of waste is openly burned.

Not all air pollution comes from human activity. Volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes also cause problems. But the biggest portion of air pollution is caused by man. The most dangerous form of air pollution is Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) - tiny pollutant particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated.

The maximum recommended level of PM 2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air, but this is exceeded several times over in the most polluted cities in the world. Zabol in Iran tops the list at 217 micrograms, while 10 Indian cities including New Delhi are in the top 20. Even in Colombo, the mean PM 2.5 level is 36 micrograms, which is much higher than the WHO recommended level.

Particles in the PM 2.5 size range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.

One should try to minimize exposure to PM 2.5 to ward off any potential health effects. This, then, is a very serious threat to public health. Unfortunately, there is very little awareness about this issue in many countries. It is thus vital to educate the public on the dangers of air pollution. A cheap mask that can stop PM 2.5 from reaching your lungs may literally be a matter of life and death in a few years.

We also have to consider the economic and medical cost of air pollution. Studies have shown that every microgram of PM 2.5 beyond the safe limit costs an estimated US$ 580 million in medical bills.

A dynamic solution involving the promotion of cleaner fuel sources in the transport sector, increased investment in public transit solutions, and the allocation of more urban land for green spaces and parks must be on the agenda of city planners the world over. Improved monitoring and tighter government regulations surrounding industrial and vehicle emissions must also come into effect to make the air cleaner.

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