Understanding and Solving Air Pollution (thats causing millions of deaths around the World)

India boasts of a staggering statistic. At least 1.6 million Indians die each year due to complications arising from air pollution. Air pollution increases the risk of complications such as cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, pulmonary diseases and pneumonia. It is the 4th largest threat to human health after high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. The air quality index showcases the air quality status based on the ambient concentration values of air pollutants and their impact on human health. Nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide etc are pollutants that impact the quality of air.

According to the AQI reports, the menace of air pollution is all pervading. Every 9 out of 10 humans on earth are taking in dirty air, causing lasting damage to health with fatal diseases. The pollution is even more dangerous for children who are living near major streets and roads and exposed to heavy-duty vehicle traffic. They are prone to twice the risk of developing respiratory problems compared to the children living near less congested streets. Air pollution is linked with an increased risk of autism in children exposed to it during pregnancy and childhood.

It is a tragic irony that the very air that helps us live can cause us to die. Its high time that we come together and accept our responsibility towards the air and environment around us.

Deaths caused by Air Pollution in the world

The number of deaths caused by air pollution is one of the major concerns of the modern world. Even after having the means to measure the quality of air, the world still hasn’t been able to tackle the problem in an effective manner. In the following table it compares the deaths cause by pollution by measuring the Pollution Index (The biggest weight is given to air pollution, then to water pollution/accessibility, two main pollution factors. Small weight is given to other pollution types) and deaths caused by it on the basis of region in the year 2016. 

 

Pollution Index

Total Population

Total no. of Deaths

Deaths percentage per population

U.S.

35

323,400,000

105,083

0.03%

EUROPE

43.5

741,400,000

500,000

0.07%

INDIA

77

1,324,200,000

1,300,000

0.10%

As per the data in the table it can be seen that the deaths per 100 people are almost in the ratio 1:2:3 in the given three regions i.e. for every 1 death in U.S. there are two deaths in Europe and 3 deaths in India with a significant similar change in the ratio of the Pollution Index. 

Air pollution situation all over the world

Global figures are not too good either. Roughly 7 million people lose their lives to air pollution borne diseases every year. Over 2 million deaths happen in the South-East Asia, another 2 million in the western pacific region, 1 million more in Africa and another 2 million in the other parts of the world.

In Europe alone, Air Quality Index (AQI) report states that half-a-million premature deaths can be attributed to air pollution annually. In fact, head of the European Environment Agency, Hans Bruyninckx labelled it as an invisible killer. According to the same report, the highly toxic NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) gas could be the most plausible cause behind 79,000 premature deaths in the continent. This gas is emitted by vehicles and central boilers in industries. Also, ground-level ozone (O3) is another factor leading to premature deaths of around 17,700 people, prematurely across Europe. Ground-level ozone is harmful in nature. It is formed when emissions like NO2 react with other pollutants in the presence of sunlight.

While there are reports claiming an improvement in the pollution levels in the European Union, the figures tell a threatening story by themselves. Roughly 40 million people in the 115 cities of the European Union (EU) are exposed to toxic air which exceeds the WHO air quality guideline values. Countries like Poland contribute highly to the air pollution in Europe as 36 out of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are in Poland.

The report is specially alarming as it refers to Europe which is considered to be one of the cleanest regions in the world. If we consider the whole of Europe, then the people living in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are the ones who are breathing in even more toxic particulate air pollution than those living in Western Europe.

The AQI of Eastern Europe has crossed the risky 100 level mark in some parts of the region. Anything beyond this point is considered unhealthy for human health. It can be responsible for various respiratory diseases as well. However, in the Western Europe, there are considerably lesser amounts of pollutants in the air and consists of an average AQI of below 50. The people in Europe should consider this vast difference and ponder upon why it occurs. The health and the future of Europe depends on this.

India and its massive air pollution

The air pollution menace is severe in India with eleven out of the twelve most polluted cities in the world being in India, as per a World Health Organization report. Toxic air is trapped in the country from forest fires, burning of coal and wood, dust storms etc. Poverty is another element as the worst pollution happens in the poorest of areas. Cook stoves, heating fuel, car exhausts, crop burning, construction site dust and kerosene lighting are common causes of pollution in Indian cities.

Air pollution is of two types, one due to particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter defined as PM2.5 and PM10 particles that are larger than 10 microns in diameter. PM2.5 particles linger longer in the air and penetrate deeper into the lungs. These are sourced from open flames like crop burning and diesel exhaust. In India, this type of pollution is common place. Farmers in Punjab often set fire to their fields to clear them for planting because it is cheaper and convenient for them. This increases the toxicity in the air in the surrounding region of Delhi. In 2018, 15,000 people died in Delhi due to air pollution.

Both Delhi and Punjab are reeling under the air pollution caused by crop burning by farmers in Punjab. Actually, the situation has worsened in the last few years. Earlier the farmers in Punjab would burn the crop straw in late September and early October. This only affected the air in Punjab adversely. However, in the last few years the burning has been delayed and happens late October. The wind flow pattern makes the pollution reach Delhi as well now. This delay is happening on the state government orders in Punjab who wants to preserve ground water by delaying the rice sowing cycle which follows the crop burning. It is claimed by them that rice consumes more water and in delaying it to late June, the government planned to save water. However, even this argument doesn’t hold well as reports from Uttar Pradesh have shown that the opposite is true. It is believed that it is a propaganda spread by the government so that the US company Monsanto can push its genetically modified maize as farmers are forced to stop growing rice.

In Mumbai, construction accounts for 30% of dust followed by vehicular emissions and open garbage burning. Already, Mumbai lost 10,500 people to pollution, followed by 7,300 in Kolkata and 4,800 in Chennai. In Hyderabad, portable oxygen cans are being sold in pharmacies which can improve the blood oxygen by just 3 inhalations to 99.

Air pollution in Asia

Asia contributes 2/3rd of world’s air pollution related deaths. The continent is home to 60% of the world’s population, most of which belongs to poor Asian countries. There are 10 countries in Asia which account for 25% of the world’s population but 34% or 2.4 million of the air pollution related deaths.

According to WHO, 90% of the worldwide deaths come from poorer nations. And a staggering 98% cities in low and middle-income countries do not meet the air quality requirements as suggested by WHO. In developed or high-income countries, this figure is at 56%. Either way, WHO says that 90% of the people all over the world are breathing in polluted air.

There are almost 2.45 billion people globally who suffer from indoor pollution. Out of these, a little less than a billion people belong to either India or China. This figure gets worsened because of poor access to health care in the rural areas of these countries. In India, 75% of air pollution related deaths occur in the rural areas.

China, one of the most populated countries in the world, is also the biggest polluter globally. But there is also a new awakening in China on environmental causes now. The people became more aware of the adverse impact of PM2.5 air pollution on human health. This outcry has galvanised the Chinese government to tackle the air pollution. It is shutting down coal mines and setting limits for coal consumption. Today, China leads the world in hydropower and solar power. It is the largest producer of clean energy. China has shown an increase of 30% in number of green jobs in the country compared to a growth of 6% in USA.

Sources of air pollution and their effects

The problem of air pollution is not limited to a region. According to studies and research done on the topic, below are the main sources of air pollution internationally:

1. Agriculture related pollution

Agriculture related activities are one of the common causes behind air pollution. The farmers often use machinery which are driven by fossil fuels in order to plough their fields. In fact, animal agriculture is a major reason behind air pollution. The animals are raised in large numbers for meat, poultry or dairy. Livestock and their by-products are responsible for roughly 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. This means that it is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions happening globally. Livestock is also responsible for 65% of all human-related NO2 emissions. NO2 is a dangerous greenhouse gas which has 296 times more global warming potential than CO2. NO2 also stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.

Also, dairy based agriculture is responsible for methane which accounts for 52% of the greenhouse gases. It is estimated that the cows produce around 250 to 500 litres of methane every day all over the world. Global consumption of meat and dairy is contributing significantly to air pollution. There is a need for a global dietary shift which avoids greenhouse-gas intensive foods like beef, and adopts heathy and green alternatives like veganism.

2. Industrial combustion

Industrial processes are another major contributor to air pollution. Almost all the common air pollutants are originating from industries. Combustion of fossil fuels in industries is driving their various processes and is also resulting in particulates such as O3 and NO2.

3. Transportation related emissions

It is proved that pregnant women living in high traffic areas have a 22% higher risk of giving birth to children with an impaired lung function compared to those living in less polluted areas. Transportation vehicles like cars, planes and ships use the combustion method to derive usable energy from fossil fuels. It releases pollutants in the air. The pollutants include particles and CO2. It also releases substances that quickly turn into major air pollutants – NO2 and O3.

4. Home heating methods

Fossils fuels such as oil, coal and gas are commonly used items for heating homes. Their combustion leads to emission of air pollutants like SO2 (sulphur dioxide). Even when electricity is used for heating a house, the fact that it comes from power plants means that it is responsible for air pollution. This is so because the power plants are run on fossil fuels.

5. Cooking methods

Homes may be using the energy sourced from power plants to make their daily meals. This means that cooking is another reason for air pollution. In developing countries, many homes burn wood or coal to cook, producing particulate pollution at the time of cooking. This also means that the indoor air pollution is 2-5 times worse than the outdoor pollution in such homes.

6. Volcanic eruptions

Various natural processes are also equally responsible for air pollution. They release substances into the air causing pollution. For example, SO2 is an air pollutant which is released by volcanoes into the air. This contributes to global warming as per National Geographic.

7. Forest fires

All over the world, Forest fires release pollutants into the air causing pollution. They produce fine smoke particles. These particles get into the lungs and damage it as per EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

8. Smoke from tobacco

In developed countries, tobacco smoke is the only visible type of indoor air pollution. It is also linked to respiratory diseases of the lungs.

9. Smelting of metal Industries cause various types of air pollution due to its processes.

One such process is smelting of metals like lead. Some other less common uses of leads also cause air pollution such as manufacturing of some aviation fuels.

10. CFC in aerosols Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols were a significant contributor to the destruction of the ozone layer. Thereafter its production was banned in countries like the USA. However, since these bans happened in the second half of the 20th century and CFCs last for a century in the atmosphere, they continue to do the damage, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Remedies for combating air pollution

Two of NASA’s projects have proved that improvements in clean air resulted in reducing air pollution deaths by half in the USA between 1990 and 2010. They also proved that high air pollution causes millions of emergency hospital visits annually. Clearly, air pollution needs to be combated fiercely.

One of the major outdoor air pollution causes is crop stubble burning. It can be stopped by finding alternative use for crop residue. A solution is to turn it into fuel gas used for cooking, heating, power etc. Gasification of biomass can help cities get rid of urban solid waste. Gasification is the method of incomplete burning of biomass or coal in a limited supply of air. Chemical processes like the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis and the water-gas shift reaction can convert waste into any type of transport fuel such as CNG, diesel, methanol or aviation jet fuel. It can also produce dimethyl ether that can replace LPG as a cooking gas. The technology chain mentioned here can convert any form of biomass into transport fuels. In fact, British Airways has signed a purchase agreement with US-based company Solena fuels, to set up a plant outside London converting 575,000 tonnes of London’s municipal solid waste into aviation turbine fuel annually.

We can also reduce emissions through source control i.e. by using clean fuels, like liquid petroleum gas and electricity. We can improve ventilation methods which ensure that air is exchanged between the inside and outside of a building through the introduction of outdoor air. Finally, mechanical air cleaners can be used for air cleaning. Also, planting trees will help balance the pollutants. Use of public transport like the metro rail can curb pollution as well. As shown by the studies done on Delhi Metro, it has reduced the carbon load significantly. Another study has shown that electricity-run metro rail has led to a decline in NO2 and CO levels in Delhi.

On a personal level people can tackle air pollution by conserving energy, carpooling, ensuring proper maintenance of vehicles, using environmentally safe products, practising waste management with the composting of leaves and wet waste. They can take a cleaner route while travelling, combine their errands to reduce trips and not burn trash etc.

At a policy level, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has suggested making pollution a costlier affair than its greener alternatives. It has also suggested removal of environmentally harmful subsidies, creation of effective regulations and standards, encouraging green innovation and integrating environmental objectives in the state government’s economic and sectoral policies. Creation of pedestrian and cycle-friendly networks, universal access to clean and affordable fuels and public systems can also curb this menace. Another personal level effort that can combat air pollution is ‘going vegan’. We know that animal agriculture is one of the major causes of climate change and pollution. By not consuming meat or dairy, each person can reduce emission of greenhouse gases by 60%. Understanding the importance of going vegan, Earthr.org has partnered with Veganuary to urge people to try vegan food for the month of January.

Earthr.org has also suggested some products and practises that can curb air pollution in the future. These are as below – • Airlite paints – This paint purifies the air through a photocatalytic oxidation effect of titanium dioxide. It can be used on the interior and exterior walls of a building.

• Chakr – It is the world’s first retro-fit emission control device for diesel generators. Its technology can capture over 90% of the particulate matter from the exhaust of diesel generators without causing any adverse impact on the diesel engine. It then converts the residue into printer ink.

• Kurin Systems – It is an air purifier which monitors air quality and has an advanced filtration system. • Air purifier bike – a concept bike running on a photosynthesis system has been developed by Lightfrog Creative and Design Company. It generates oxygen through its aluminium frame.

• Birdhouses with free Wi-fi – Amsterdam has deployed unsuspecting birdhouses with roofs that turn red in poor air quality and green when the quality is good. It then rewards with a free wi-fi for the good air quality maintained in the area.

• Smog Free Tower – This 7-meter tall tower vacuums the poor air and can be used in places such as parks.

• City Trees – This concept claims to apply moss cultures that filter pollutants and purify the air around them. • Industrial Vacuum Cleaner – An artist named Nut Brother has created this cleaner that can absorb the foul air and accumulate it enough to create bricks out of it.

• AirLabs – It is a technology for decreasing pollution concentrations in micro environments existing within urban areas by using sensors and advanced computational frameworks. Gas pollutants are captured using a reaction with certain materials and are removed using physical trapping technologies.

• Solar charged electric vehicle – Amman, Jordan has launched a pilot project with 150 electric vehicles and 10 charging stations. This combined with an advanced information and monitoring system provide a positive user experience. The next phase includes 10,000 vehicles and 3000 charging stations.

References

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