Air Pollution: How Air Affects Us, and How We Affect Air

Healthy environments lead to healthy inhabitants. Just as much as we affect the environment with our actions, the environment affects us whenever we interact with it, which as you can imagine happens quite often. One of the most important necessities for our body is oxygen, which of course comes from the air. Since we depend on the contents of the air so much, it goes without saying that pollution in the air is not good for humanity, or anything on the planet for that matter. This kind of pollution is a bigger killer than some may realize at first glance, and it is highly likely it will continue to get bigger at the current rate. Currently, outdoor and indoor air pollution are responsible for 4.2 million and 3.8 million deaths per year respectively. Over 90% of the world’s population lives somewhere in which air quality falls outside of the standard air quality guidelines as set by the WHO.

A photograph taken in Philadelphia

A photograph taken in Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum’s hometown

Air pollution is also responsible for the following:

  • 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 24% of all deaths from stroke
  • 25% of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Despite air pollution affecting every population, there are certain populations that are actually more affected than others. Generally speaking, lower income countries, as well as communities that live near high traffic and industrial sites are the ones that are most likely to be impacted by pollution in the air. About 90% of deaths mentioned in the aforementioned premature death statistic happened within countries that are considered mid-income to low-income.

Encased coal miner's lung

A visual example of how breathing in poor air can affect lungs on a greater scale to give an idea of how similar effects can take place on an everyday level.
Image taken from Mütter Museum collection.

Another important factor to take note of when speaking of air pollution is people who already have pre-existing conditions unrelated to the pollution. The pollution can worsen an existing condition, especially in young children and elders. These include heart disease, lung disease, and asthma. Even lungs that are not fully developed yet can have reductions in their growth rate or ability to function if exposed.

Our own health isn’t the only thing at risk. The environment that we all live in is doomed to meet a similar fate if air pollution stays a prominent factor. The climate and ecosystems all around the globe can deteriorate as much as we can, and they already have started to show some signs that they are. Specific pollutants such as methane and black carbon are powerful contributors to changes that can be alarming in the long run such as climate change and productivity in agriculture. Just looking at recent events, such as how climate change is talked about politically, or how the amazon forest fires started up, we can see that the once negative possibilities of pollution are already starting to become a reality, and will only get worse if things are not changed from their current state.
What can we do? First, it’s vital to know what role we as a society have in making air pollution worse. Some of the ways that humans have a direct impact on air quality include:

  • Fuel combustion
  • Generating of heat and power
  • Industrial work
  • Burning of waste
  • Using polluting fuels to cook, heat, and light
Factory emitting exhaust into the sky

Factory emitting exhaust into the sky; one example of many of how we pollute the air.

It is becoming more apparent each day that we need to take some sort of action if we want air pollution to stop affecting us and the environment. This is not a problem that will just go away if we wait long enough. Cooperation across all sectors in reducing our reliance on damaging aspects of life, while a hard task to accomplish, is crucial to kick-starting the end to the problem. Society needs to start making the change to cleaner transportation and power before the negative effects become worse than they already are, and that should just be the beginning. Changes in city structuring, recycling as much as possible, replacing appliances that are damaging, and much more can help make a difference both in the short and long term. If you care about the issue, it can’t hurt to spread the information in any way you can, as awareness on the problem at hand is the first step to making the change. You can’t just buy another Earth if it goes kaput like you can with a cell phone or something like that, so it’s important to take care of the one we have.

Environmental Defense Fund: Health Impacts of Air Pollution
World Health Organization: Air Pollution