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Why Should You Care About Air Pollution?

Thick orange smog over the New York City Skyline
Are we seeing clearly when it comes to air pollution?
  • Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk today, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), and a major risk factor for many of the leading causes of death
  • It may also have unexpected economic consequences. Higher levels of air pollution in a city significantly increases the rates of property crime, according to research from Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business (NU GSB)
  • This is because people living in cities with high levels of air pollution are more likely to place a greater importance of having something in the future, without considering potential future consequences

New York City made headlines around the world last month as it became shrouded in hazy orange smog. Images showing how thick wildfire smoke which had blown in from wildfires in Canada had settled over the iconic skyline were accompanied by stories on how the city had – briefly – become the one with the worst air pollution in the world… And then it, quite literally, blew over.

Air pollution is one of the world’s largest health and environmental problems, yet it’s one that is largely ignored. In fact, in 2019, 99 percent of the world’s population was living in places where the World Health Organisation’s guideline levels were not met. Each year in London, for example, the legal air pollution limits are broken within just a few weeks of the new year, Greenpeace says, with seemingly little consequence.

How dangerous is air pollution really?

air pollution

So, if nobody else is paying attention, should we care? The answer, of course, is a profound yes – especially according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has deemed air pollution the greatest environmental risk today.

It’s estimated that air pollution contributes to seven million premature deaths around the world annually, and is the leading cause of death among children under the age of 15, killing 600,000 every year. And this, along with the overall number of deaths caused by air pollution around the world is rising.

Air pollution causes over one million deaths every year in both China and India alone, and is a major risk factor for many of the leading causes of death, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, diabetes and lower respiratory infections.

And, aside of health, air pollution may have unexpected economic consequences as well. Whilst previous research has shown that air pollution can negatively impact the decision-making skills of investors, recent investigations from Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business (NU GSB) have revealed that higher levels of air pollution in a city significantly increases the rates of property crime.

The study collected data on air pollution, crime, and weather over three winters in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan and one of the most densely polluted in the world. It found that increased air pollution was linked to significant increases in both major and minor crime rates. However, results also showed that air pollution only impacts property crime, particularly major theft, rather than violent crime.

This, according to David DeRemer, Assistant Professor at NU GSB, is consistent with the theory that air pollution disrupts sound decision-making, leading to higher discounting rather than aggression.

Discounting, the study explains, is the extent to which an individual will devalue something good in the future in favour of gaining something good in the present. So, higher discounting leads to placing greater importance on having something immediately – often with little consideration of the consequences.

People living in cities with high levels of air pollution are more likely to do exactly this – placing a greater importance of having what they want sooner and making the potential for criminality higher.

emissions from factory chimneys

“We hope this study can help policymakers recognise that air pollution is not only a health problem but a cause of broader economic harm,” explains DeRemer. “Air pollution is not a trade-off between improving public health and economic growth, but a priority for both short-term and long-term economic prosperity.”

Indoor vs outdoor pollution: which is worse?

There are two main types of air pollution:

  • Indoor air pollution: Poor air quality inside non-industrial environments, such as inside your house, car interior, public transport, etc.
  • Outdoor air pollution: Poor air quality outside from a variety of pollutants.

When we think of air pollution, we probably picture those images of New York: thick smog, dirt particles, people wearing masks on the street.

However, indoor air pollution could be up to eight times greater than outdoor pollution, studies have shown, and, as we spend more than 80 percent of our time indoors, this could have worrying effects on our health. Data has shown that outdoor pollution contributes to indoor pollution.

What causes air pollution?

Although the causes of air pollution in a city are largely dependent on the its location and any regulations in place to curb emissions, there are several contributing factors, which can be split into two categories: man-made and natural.

Manmade causes of air pollution include;

  • Transport: Fuel combustion in motor vehicles such as trains, cars, planes and ships lead to increased levels of particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide.
  • Industry: Pollution from factories, coal power plants, oil refineries, boilers and mines causing increased levels of nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.
  • Agriculture: The use of fertilisers on agricultural land contributing to fine particulate air pollution.

Natural sources of air pollution include;

  • Household: Activities within the household such as cooking and heating with coal, wood burning, and the building and construction of homes and furnishings
  • Wildfires and open burning: Burning organic material emits a variety of harmful air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, lead and mercury.

What can you do to reduce air pollution?

There are several small changes you can make in order to limit your personal contribution to air pollution. These include making changes to your daily routine, such as using public transport where possible, or re-using and recycling items and steering away from single-use options. Making the decision to use less energy in your home – opting to pull on a jumper rather than turning the heating on, or opening a window and removing a layer rather than relying upon air conditioning are all little changes which, collectively can make a big difference. Going further, installing a filter for your chimney at home, or refraining from burning garden waste can also help combat rising levels.

But, as always, there is strength to be found in numbers. Collective action can also bring significant change. for example, supporting local authorities who are actively working to reduce air pollution, or becoming an advocate for large scale changes. Recently more than 200 health professionals wrote to the UK’s Prime Minister urging him to take action on air pollution after a high alert was issued in London last month.

Will we see similar action in New York? Time will tell. However we decide as a society to act, one thing the experts all agree on is that time is running out. We need to adapt the way we live in order to ensure our survival. Now, more than ever, that first step is needed.

How can we reduce air pollution? Have your say in the comments below!

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