Among all forms of pollution, air pollution is the deadliest as it kills millions of people every year. Humans have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past 150 years to raise its levels higher than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years. The gas is produced by cars, planes, power plants, and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas.
Other greenhouse gases such as methane also contribute to the worsening air pollution which has deteriorating impacts on Earth’s ozone layer. Airborne particles can also have direct effects separate from climate change. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, they can harm forests and crops, change or deplete nutrients in soil and waterways, and damage cultural icons such as monuments and statues.
Air pollution is also a global health hazard. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that bad outdoor air caused an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016 -- about 90% of them live in low- and middle-income countries. Previous studies have also linked higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases such as asthma to air pollution. The American Lung Association has estimated that nearly 134 million people or over 40% of the population are at risk of disease and premature death because of it.
Air Pollution in Numbers
A 2016 study from the WHO showed that more than 9 out of 10 of the world’s population live in places where air pollution exceeds safe limits. About seven million people die prematurely each year as a result of breathing dirty air. The most affected, however, are those who are living in low- and middle-income countries with over 94% deaths linked to it.
According to World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, the biggest regional danger spots include Africa, Eastern Europe, India, China, and the Middle East. “Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said.
Previous studies also showed that Germany had over 62,000 deaths attributable to exposure to PM 2.5 in 2015, followed closely by Italy with more than 60,600. Air pollution not only impacts our health but also our economy. Research conducted by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) discovered that air pollution led to one in 10 deaths in 2013, which cost the global economy about $225 billion in lost labor income.
Thus, researchers called their study an “urgent call to action” for policymakers around the world. “Of all the different risk factors for premature deaths, this is one area, the air we breathe, over which individuals have little control. Policymakers in health and environment agencies, as well as leaders in various industries, are facing growing demands – and expectations – to address this problem,” Dr. Chris Murray, Director of IHME, said.
Air Pollution During COVID-19 Shutdowns
Many countries and cities across the world have implemented a total lockdown, ordering their citizens to just stay at home and observe self-quarantine. This effort aims to stop the spread of COVID-19 and control the rates of infection as it has infected and killed thousands of people across the world. These lockdowns, fortunately, have contributed to a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in some countries.
The decrease in global economic activities every day due to the pandemic has reduced the variety of gases related to energy and transport. In China alone, recent reports showed that there has been a 25% drop in energy use and emissions in China over a two week period., which is likely to lead to an overall fall of about 1% in China's carbon emissions this year. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, China and Northern Italy have also recorded significant falls in nitrogen dioxide. This is mainly due to reduced car journeys and industrial activity.
Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland, also reported that industrial operations were reduced by 15% to 40% in some sectors and that coal consumption at power plants fell by 36%. "This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic dropoff over such a wide area for a specific event," Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said.
Reports also revealed there has been a 28% drop in air pollution rates in New York City while Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue saw a 32 decrease. Other experts are also expecting to see greenhouse gas emissions plummet across many regions due to quarantine measures.
Marshall Burke, a Stanford University environmental resource economist, recently released a report showing that it's very likely that the lives saved locally from the reduction in pollution exceed COVID-19 deaths in China. According to Science Alert, a major international publisher of academic and research journals, two months of pollution reduction have probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. These figures are significantly higher than the current global death toll from the virus itself.
"Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural - if admittedly strange - the question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself," Burke said.
Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York City, stated that the shutdowns due to the pandemic could make companies and governments realize that other threats to humanity could be just as devastating. They could use this to develop protective measures in the long run. "As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value. Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution?" Klopp said.