The current air quality emergency in Delhi, where the AQI has reached 999 (which is well above the “safe” level of 100 set in the US by the EPA), has raised recent awareness about air pollution and human health.
I recently shared some articles on the #DehliAirEmergency on my social feeds, adding a comment about how air pollution caused over 8 million deaths per year. Several people reached out to me, surprised that air pollution could cause death or chronic illness, and so I thought I’d devote a post to address the health impacts of air pollution.
I must say I myself was shocked to learn about the serious and sweeping dangers of air pollution. I always assumed it could cause some respiratory distress, but didn’t think it could do much more than that.
Then, I took a job where I spent a semester researching air pollution as a justice issue for a lawyer at Mailman (she’s a legend and I learned so much…but that’s another story for another time) and I was surprised to learn it caused not only respiratory illness, but also cardiovascular diseases, cancer, neurological illnesses, and even death.
What’s alarming about air pollution, and many other environmental health exposures, is that they are, for many, unavoidable. While we can choose whether or not we smoke, do drugs, or engage in other risky health behaviors, we must all breathe air, we do not have the luxury of choosing how clean or dirty that air is.
Obviously, air pollution levels vary by geographical location, and there are luxuries afforded to privileged individuals to reduce their risks. However, air pollution, like climate change, is a threat to us all.
I hope by spreading awareness about these topics I can help others understand how and why we need to take action. I don’t think anyone wants their family, friends, and pets breathing in toxic air, because as you will learn in the text that proceeds this, air pollution can do a lot of damage to health.
So with all that said, here’s a post about how air pollution can impact human health. I hope you enjoy it As always, please feel free to leave questions or comments below, and/or reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube!
What is air pollution?
Air pollution is a mixture of natural and human-created substances in the air. According to the WHO, the 6 major air pollutants include ground-level ozone, particle pollution (read all about PM 2.5 here), carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxides and lead.
Air pollutants are typically divided into two main categories: outdoor air pollution, and indoor (ambient) air pollution.
Outdoor air pollution is, as the name suggests, pollution you would be exposed to the outside of the built environment, and includes things like fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels, ground-level ozone (which is produced from the reaction of oxygen and urban smog), tobacco smoke, and noxious gasses such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and chemical vapors.
Indoor air pollution (also known as ambient or household air pollution) is found within buildings and homes and is considered one of the most important environmental health risks worldwide.
Indoor air pollution involves exposure to household particles like building materials such as asbestos, formaldehyde, and lead, allergens from pests like cockroaches and mice, tobacco smoke, mold, and pollen. Indoor air pollution may also contain carbon monoxide, radon, and household products and chemicals found from cleaning, building, or pest control products.
In developing countries, indoor air pollution is often generated by incomplete combustion of fuels for cooking, heat, and lighting, without ventilation. Coal, charcoal, wood, kerosene, and dung are commonly burned using ‘dirty’ technologies, which do not completely burn these fuels, and emit air pollution into the home. People who spend more time around the source of the air pollution, like women and children, are at highest risk for adverse health effects.
Both forms of air pollution are important to address and both can contribute to each other.
Air Pollution and Human Health: How many people die each year from air pollution?
Air pollution is responsible for an estimated 8 million deaths each year (some estimates go up to 8.8 million deaths per year), with about 4 million of those deaths coming from indoor air pollution.
Yes, you read that correctly – over 8 million people die from air pollution each year.
To put that in perspective, the WHO estimates 7 million smokers die each year from cigarettes (and an additional 1.2 million die from secondhand smoke), meaning deaths from air pollution are roughly on par with deaths from smoking. Except individuals have the choice to smoke. AIr pollution is something people can’t escape.…