Air pollution has been on the rise since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when people initially began burning fossil fuel in large quantities as a primary energy source. At its essence air pollution is a buildup of harmful particulates within the earth’s atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and compounds emitted from gaseous primary pollutants (smog) – just to name a few. While it is true that natural causes can lead to harmful air pollutants (ex: volcanic eruptions), these natural sources are minimal in comparison to the rising problem of human-caused air pollution.
Air pollution takes a huge toll on the productivity of the economy. It’s estimated that each year $5 trillion dollars is lost worldwide due to increasing air pollution. This is strictly calculated by the amount of lost time, and reduced productivity due to illnesses caused by poor air quality. However, the cost would likely be even higher if it took into consideration other factors attributed to pollution, such as the dramatic reduction in crop yield since 1980.
Not surprisingly, smog doesn’t just affect humans. It has been linked to black lung disease in dolphins who live in ecosystems near larger population centers. The toxic particulate in the atmosphere creates acid rain, which can destroy entire ecosystems. There is also an increase in the occurrence of algae blooms, historically an entirely natural process, which is now being influenced by the release of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere by heavy industry. This release of excess nitrogen eventually is collected into waterways and triggers an explosion of nitrogen feeding lifeforms – algae. This bloom is extremely damaging to the environment, as it kills off all other aquatic life.
The statistics around health problems related to air issues are staggering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution was responsible for roughly 7 million premature deaths in 2014. This study was conducted both within cities and in rural areas, ensuring that the myth of breathing in clean country air is thoroughly debunked. In 2010, a study published by the University of York found that in parts of the world with the worst air pollution (East Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia), poor air quality led to 2.7 million premature babies.
How exactly does air pollution affect human health? There is an unending stream of well documented and proven linkages between poor air quality and serious health concerns, most dramatic of which is death. Some of the most serious effects are explored in further detail below.
4 Major Effects of Air Pollution on Health
Some of the scariest statistics are about the global mortality rates associated with air pollution. According to the WHO, they attribute one in eight deaths globally to exposure to air pollution. This is linked to both indoor and outdoor air quality issues, with the most deaths happening in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific nations. Air pollution is a major impetus behind a long list of serious diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, as well as lung diseases such as acute respiratory and chronic obstructive pulmonary infections. It has even been linked to fatal stroke and heart attacks, especially among women.
2. Lung Disease
Air quality has been unequivocally linked to lung disease. It is estimated that approximately 80% of lung diseases are caused by poor air quality. The higher the amount of poisonous particulate matter in the atmosphere, the higher the instance of reduced lung function experienced by the local population. Common illnesses, such as emphysema and asthma, are directly linked to traffic pollution from exhaust pipes. In one long term study after the infamous Great Smog of London in 1952, the health of truck drivers was compared to those who lived in urban areas and those who lived in rural areas. Those who lived within the city, experienced a higher restriction of lung capacity, more mucus production and overall more severe respiratory issues. These toxins are especially harsh on children because of their already smaller lung capacities.
3. Cardiovascular Disease
In areas of the world with the highest levels of air pollution, people are experiencing an increased number of heart disease and stroke. In poorer regions, where homes use indoor fires for heat and food preparation, women are especially susceptible to increased risk of heart disease because they tend to have prolonged exposure to harsh fumes. Even in urban areas, where people spend hours commuting in heavy traffic on a daily basis, this has been linked to increased risk of heart attack.
There is strong evidence linking increased risk of cancer (both lung and other) to high levels of air pollution. Specifically, this has been linked to increased nitrogen oxide and traffic exhaust common to urban and industrial neighborhoods. According to a study published in 2015, cancer was nearly entirely attributed to environmental factors, and not simply caused by bad luck. Prolonged exposure to toxins in the atmosphere, both indoors and outdoors, will gradually but continuously increase the risk for cancer in otherwise healthy people.