As the planet warms and becomes more populated, the negative impact of our modern life is increasingly evident. While invisible to the naked eye, the toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere as a byproduct of our antiquated energy and waste systems are taking a toll on all life–to the sum of 7 million human deaths per year and countless flora and fauna.
Air pollution comes in many forms. The burning of fossil fuels for energy releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, causing a rise in global average temperatures. In turn, this threatens biodiversity, our food, and water. Industrial processes emit particulate matter, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other noxious gases. These chemicals can travel great distances, being absorbed by animals through their skin or ingested in their food or water. Even seemingly pristine landscapes can be affected by air pollution from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs,” says Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport, and food systems effectively pays for itself.”
The health effects of air pollution are fatal and are compounding faster and faster. Nine out of ten people in the world now breathe polluted air. The full scope of premature deaths continues to grow in scale as we learn more about the effects of the air we breathe on the physiology of all life, the critical nature of resilience in the environment, and the cooperation of our species.
Let’s take a look at how each of the three aspects of health is affected: Human, Nature, and the Collective.
Simply put, we need clean air to survive. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, there’s no denying that the human body is affected holistically by the air we breathe. All of the organs in our body struggle to function when we breathe contaminated air. It comes down to the arterial constriction that is caused by air pollution, causing your heart, your brain, or your blood flow to slow or stop altogether. On the other side of this coin, breathing in therapeutic phytoncides in the forest can improve your immune system.
Air pollution weakens our immune system and is making us vulnerable to disease and less resilient as our climate becomes more volatile. In the short term, it can cause allergic reactions, upper respiratory problems, asthma, headaches, and nausea. But it doesn’t stop there. In the long-term, it may manifest itself in a variety of chronic diseases, including lung cancer and heart disease. At least one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease are due to air pollution.
Humans should also be cautious of the air they’re breathing indoors. Chemicals from household cleaners, smoking, and cooking can be significant sources of pollution. It is essential to be aware of the chemicals that are in cleaners and the smoke point of cooking oils as they can become carcinogenic if they burn. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can off-gas for years from many fossil-fuel byproduct materials and products in homes, including paint, flooring, and furniture.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong.
The natural world suffers from air pollution even more than humans because there is no escape or mechanical air filters available to it. The microscopic particulate matter threatens the trees, the bees, and all of the beloved animals that are essential to Earth’s ecosystems–and in turn, our shared natural resources.
Animals are the silent victims of the pollution we create. The National Audubon Society reports, “birds are exposed to more airborne particles – or particulate matter (PM) – than humans because birds have a higher breathing rate and spend more time in the open air.”
It also affects future generations. Just like human fertility, animal fertility is also significantly impacted by pollution. Studies of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), toxic chemicals emitted by traffic, cause reduced egg production and hatching, increased clutch or brood abandonment, and reduced growth in birds. A study in Spain found that blackbirds exposed to long-term air pollution have significantly lower body weights. PAHs have also been found to cause DNA mutations in Cormorants in Canada, which can then be passed to their offspring.
In humans and birds alike DNA mutations disrupt essential cell processes and cause cells to divide uncontrollably – a condition known as cancer. A study in Virginia found that increased ozone levels may reduce species diversity, alter water and nutrient cycles, and pave the way for invasive plant species. Even our water is becoming more acidic because of the chemicals we emit. A study that looked at the impacts of air pollution on biodiversity across the eastern United States found that the accumulation of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides causes soil and water to become more acidic, reducing the amount of nutritional value of all life’s food sources. Ultimately, nature’s ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere is suffocated, making it harder to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Let’s take a step back and examine how air pollution affects the Collective: the interactions, connections, and relationships between each human and the natural environment. Air pollution is an invisible threat, negatively impacting governance, bilateral cooperation, economics, education, and social cohesion. An individual’s mental health, creativity, and mood can become weakened. This compounds to impaired judgment and higher levels of crime. While additional meta-analyses are required to understand further the effects of air pollution on the Collective, the initial findings are scary.
In a paper published by the IZA Institute, Sefi Roth, a scientist at the London School of Economics, wrote, “Recently, an increasing body of research has shown that air pollution—even in relatively low doses—also affects educational outcomes across several distinct age groups and varying lengths of exposure. This implies that a narrow focus on traditional health outcomes, such as morbidity and mortality, may understate the true benefit of reducing pollution, as air pollution also affects scholastic achievement and human capital formation.”
Cities with the highest pollution also had the highest crime rate, according to Jackson Lu of MIT. He found “air pollution predicted six major categories of crime, including manslaughter, rape, robbery, theft, and assault. In fact, when researchers followed pollution hotspots as the wind pushed them around metropolitan areas, crime also went up.” As BBC reported, “In the future, police and crime prevention units may begin to monitor the levels of pollution in their cities, and deploy resources to the areas where pollution is heaviest on a given day.”
Here’s What You Can Do About It:
It’s going to take each of us making small changes in our daily lives to force private companies and public institutions to respond. And that starts with the awareness that much of our modern life relies on burning fossil fuels for energy and creating derivative products like plastics. Let’s put more effort into being conscious consumers by supporting regenerative organic agriculture, using natural products, and using renewable energy systems. Together, we can make a big difference.
In stark contrast to regenerative organic agriculture, conventional industrial agriculture is a massive contributor to methane and carbon dioxide emissions. Start by growing as much of your food at home as possible using organic methods and composting food waste. Support local farmers who practice regenerative agriculture or Biodynamics. They capture more carbon in the soil than they emit and create sustainable, healthy ecosystems.
Buying anything made out of plastic indirectly supports the fossil fuel industry. Start by evaluating what products you’re using in the kitchen and the personal care products that are in your bathroom. Be aware of the paint you use because even if it claims to be “zero-VOC,” it still contains fossil fuel byproducts. Next up: your bank account. The overwhelming majority of banks lend to fossil fuel companies and other environmental destroyers. Consider switching to a bank that is committed to the environment. There are no jobs on a dead planet.
Fossil fuels account for 84 percent of the world’s energy consumption as of 2019, and it’s estimated that we will run out of this resource in approximately 50 years. That’s just not sustainable. Walk or bike as much as you can. Ask your energy provider if they have renewable energy options if you don’t have solar. And opt for energy-efficient appliances and goods whenever possible.
Finally, advocate and vote for public representatives pushing for policies that improve our environment and protect vulnerable ecosystems that are essential to the health of the planet.
To learn more ways to reduce your carbon footprint, check out this article.
Fight for your health, fight for your planet.