Air pollution isn’t anything new, but it’s on us to fix it

October 01, 2021

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Quicker and more convenient transportation options. Getting to the other side of the world in 24 hours. A bigger variety of goods on our supermarket shelves. Same-day delivery to your doorstep. 

Thickening smog. A rising number of respiratory diseases. Warnings against going outside due to air pollution. Premature death.

As always, every coin has two sides. Has humankind’s rapid economic growth caused us to irreversibly contaminate the air we breathe? 

The answer is no. We can still minimise our impact, but we need to act now.

An ancient enemy

Daily convenience has a price and the industrial growth behind it has had (and continues to have) an immense impact on the air we breathe. Considering our rapid growth during the last decade, is air pollution another consequence of our modern way of life?

Turns out it isn’t. Air pollution goes back way further than you might think.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, says that the harmful effects of air pollution were already present in Roman times

But it’s not like the Romans didn’t try to turn the situation around for the better. In 535, then Emperor Justinian even proclaimed the importance of clean air as a birthright. “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea,” he wrote.

Medieval times brought smelting. Followed by coal-burning. After that, Europeans took air pollution with them to the New World. So, human impact on the environment was widespread even before high-density manufacturing processes became a thing.

Still, the worst was yet to come.

We’ve all seen pictures of dark satanic mills covered in smoke. The industrial revolution depended almost entirely on one source of fuel – coal. And while we were turning our cities black with smoke, there was a new pollutant waiting just around the corner: the internal combustion engine.

Donora and London lead us to take action

By 1940, Los Angeles was home to more than one million cars. When the city was smogged in on July 26, 1943, residents feared it was some kind of Japanese chemical attack. Four years later, the first air pollution control district was established in the country to regulate air pollution. 

On October 27, 1948, thick smog began to cover the river town of Donora, Pennsylvania. A storm rolled in four days later that cleared the air, but in the aftermath 20 died and 6,000 were struck with illness. 

On December 5, 1952, a fog enveloped London, killing roughly 4,000 people before it dissipated four days later. The Great Smog of London, as we know it today. Parliament acted with dispatch, passing the U.K. Clean Air Act in 1956, effectively reducing the burning of coal.  

In 1963, the US Congress enacted the first Clean Air Act. Two years later, national emissions standards for cars were set. But it wasn’t until the 1970 Clean Air Act that Congress set the framework for air pollution regulation tied to public health.

Legislation has generally improved air quality, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. International efforts to deal with air pollution continue on a daily basis. Dirty air is still on top of the risk factor list, causing millions of deaths on a yearly basis.

Source: IQAir

How do we measure air quality?

Air quality is measured with the Air Quality Index (AQI). It works a bit like a thermometer that runs from 0 to 500. However, instead of showing changes in the temperature, the AQI is a way of displaying changes to the amount of pollution in the air.

The air in our atmosphere is mostly made up of two gases that are essential for us to stay alive: nitrogen and oxygen. However, the air also contains smaller amounts of many other gases and different particles. The AQI tracks five major air pollutants:

  • Ground-level ozone;
  • Carbon monoxide;
  • Sulfur dioxide;
  • Nitrogen dioxide;
  • Airborne particles, also known as aerosols.

Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two main ingredients in smog, the most obvious type of air pollution. 

Source: AirNow

An AQI under 50 means that air quality is good. At this low AQI level, a person can spend time outdoors and air pollution will pose very little risk to their health. As the AQI number increases, so does the risk to human health. If interested, you can check your local AQI in real-time.

You can help to fight air pollution

We have legislation and climate acts. We have high-level actions for fighting climate change. Still, there are things each and everyone can do to keep the air we breathe cleaner on a daily basis, such as:

  • Educating yourself on climate topics;
  • Regulating the level of energy you consume – conserve when and where possible;
  • Using public transport, your bicycle, or a ride-hailing service like Bolt instead of buying a car;
  • Opting for more sustainable transport options on a daily basis;
  • Reducing trips – combine errands and walk when possible;
  • Reusing and recycling;
  • Using environmentally safe products;
  • Shopping and preferring local produce;
  • Raising your voice – daring to challenge your local government in climate-related matters.

It’s our responsibility to ensure air pollution doesn’t get worse, each and every one of us has a role to play. The steps we take as individuals may seem small but they’re definitely not meaningless.

Start small, but start.

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