Air pollution – causes and consequences 

Every day we breathe in an unhealthy cocktail of chemicals, mainly from industrial activities, transport, and agriculture. In this blog post, let’s take a look at what pollutes our air the most and why it's considered the biggest environmental risk worldwide.
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Air pollution is caused by gases and particles being emitted into the atmosphere from a variety of activities. Much of this pollution is produced when petroleum, coal, and other materials are burned. Cars, power plants, waste incineration, and home heating systems are also responsible for the pollution of air every day. The more pollutants there are in the air, the more dangerous this becomes for our health; the resulting consequences can be severe respiratory diseases and even brain damage.

What is air pollution?

Pure air consists mainly of nitrogen (78 %) and oxygen (21 %). In addition, there are some more trace gases like argon (0.9 %) and carbon dioxide (0.04 %). Air pollution is thus defined as the deviation from these natural values due to the emission of potential pollutants. However, natural “pure” air is now sought in vain on Earth. The reason for this is simple; human activities are massively polluting the atmosphere. Impure air is therefore now a normal condition to which we are exposed on a daily basis and this applies to both the outdoor air and our indoor spaces. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 7 million people worldwide die each year as a result of air pollution. Particulate matter in particular poses a considerable health risk because it penetrates into the sensitive areas of our respiratory system. The pollutant particles and gases generated by traffic, industry, and agriculture are released into the air, where they mix together to form an unhealthy chemical cocktail that we breathe in every day.

What are the causes of air pollution?

Air pollution comes from a variety of natural and man-made sources. Natural sources include volcanic eruptions, ocean spray, soil dust, natural vegetation fires, and lightning. Man-made air pollution often originates in the following sectors:
  • Industry (coal-fired power plants)
  • Transportation (automobiles, aviation, and shipping)
  • Agriculture (chemical fertilizers and pesticides)
  • Private households (cooking, heating, and lighting).
Major sources of air pollution in urban areas include vehicles, burning of gas, coal and charcoal, wood for cooking and heating, and other industrial activities. Agricultural sources such as burning and forest clearing for land reclamation, as well as forest fires also contribute much to both urban and rural air pollution. Some sources, such as forest and savanna fires happen to occur naturally but are exacerbated by human activities. Thick, gray veils of fog are often seen, especially in large cities and metropolitan areas. Here, air quality is particularly poor due to high levels of particulate matter. In addition to particulate matter, toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or sulfur dioxide, which are suspended in the lower atmosphere, also pollute the air. Since air pollution knows no borders; wind and weather distribute air pollutants all over the world. Air pollution is particularly severe in cities with millions of inhabitants in India, Pakistan, and Iran, or even in Mexico City.

Air pollution - the biggest environmental risk worldwide?

Air pollution is considered the world’s greatest environmental risk to public health. People are exposed to air pollution everywhere: at work, while traveling, and even at home. Often, pollutants are formed secondarily, that is, as a result of chemical reactions. These are even more harmful than their parent substances. Ozone, for example, is toxic in higher concentrations and irritates the respiratory tract. Fine dust particles can even cause cancer. Because of their small size, they are known to enter the bloodstream through the alveoli. This is how they reach our body cells, where they can trigger uncontrolled reactions. Coarse pollutant particles such as smoke or soot, on the other hand, settle in the lungs. Sustained exposure to such pollutants can lead to black discoloration, tissue damage, and ultimately lung cancer. The most common health consequences of air pollution include:

  • Respiratory diseases, such as asthma and permanent airway obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Cancers, such as lung cancer

How do I know how high the air pollution is in my area?

Many cities use a monitoring network to continuously measure air pollution levels. These regularly report an air quality index (AQI) to warn of dangerous air pollution levels. BreezoMeter’s air quality alerts make it easy to keep up to date with real-time information about pollution levels and changing air quality values. Check your air quality here.

Is air pollution a solvable problem?

To keep pollutants in the air low, it is particularly important that there are enough forests and parks to clean the air and create a balance. This is because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen in return, which is vital for us. But that itself is not enough. At the same time, measures must also be taken to help reduce global emissions of pollutants. Numerous countries and cities have already implemented measures to improve air quality. The city of New Delhi, for example, has imposed driving bans. London has introduced an environmental toll in order to achieve the target values for better air quality. Nevertheless, many more efforts will be needed in the future to reduce air pollution.

What measures can be taken in everyday life?

Now, if you’re wondering what each of us can do to curb air pollution, here are three simple answers:
  • Reduce driving This is probably the most obvious of all measures since internal combustion engines in our cars are constantly blowing nitrogen oxide into the air. Therefore, we should switch as much as possible to more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as the train or a bicycle.
  • Control energy consumption The less energy you use at home, the lesser energy power plants have to generate. Turn off appliances when you’re not using them and get energy-efficient LED light bulbs.
  • Use clean, green energy Conventional power generation pollutes our air and warms our planet. We must use electricity generated from renewable sources as much as possible.
In addition to outside air pollution, indoor pollution is also a serious problem. In fact, indoor air is up to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air. There are many sources in your home from which pollutants can be released into the indoor air and thus become dangerous for you. However, air purifiers can provide a remedy for this. The OneLife X air purifier protects your health from the ill effects of polluted indoor air. In addition to that, it is also sustainable and resource-saving. Find out what sources contribute to your indoor air pollution and what you can do about it in this article: “5 hidden sources of indoor air pollution and how to fight them”.