Air pollution is one of the major concerns in the civilized world due to the extensive adverse effects it has on humanity. This challenge has been prevalent from the old years with any emissions noted to have an impact on the atmosphere. It is only recently that the legislature has taken up the role of imposing strict regulations to control air pollution. This is because of increased risks in health, financial, and other aspects. The concept must be understood entirely to bring in the right solutions for mitigation. This paper seeks to comprehend the idea of air pollution, its impact, and the impacts it has caused on humanity. Broadening one’s knowledge on this aspect paves the way to finding practical solutions to the challenge on a global scale.
One of the leading global health risks is air pollution. Over 5.5 million people die annually around the world from ailments related to breathing polluted air. The illnesses include lung cancer, acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, among others. The severity of this situation when one notes that the number of people who die from air pollution is six times those who die from malaria and four times those who die from HIV/AIDS. While affecting the health levels of the population, this subsequently leads to reduced economic productivity, perpetuating existing inequalities, and degradation of natural ecosystems. In the long run, the prevalence of air pollution in society will be detrimental to each living thing in the environment.
Figure1: The Percentage of Attributable Deaths by Risk Factor
Source: (World Bank Group, 2016)
Nonetheless, air pollution is not a one-day thing. Its occurrence has arisen from a
series of human activities producing air pollutants in line with operations. This challenge is in both developed and less developed countries; thus, the negative effect is felt everywhere. It is only proper that this challenge is mitigated through long term solutions. Human beings are wasting the bounties of nature with no second thought of the problems they are bringing upon themselves. Critical stakeholders must deepen their knowledge of the laws of nature and widen their understanding of the requirements in human behavior to deal with air pollution challenges. Broadening one’s knowledge entails understanding the causes and effects on humanity and the environment.
This research paper looks to understand the whole air pollution concept in terms of its causes, its impact on humanity in the past, present, and future to finally give ways to mitigate its occurrence.
Background of the Concept, Air pollution
In the early years of the 20th-century, inhalation toxicity was associated with war gases such as phosgene and particular occupations such as mining and foundries (Costa, 2018). However, in October 1948, Donora, PA, was covered in a lethal haze (The United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020). For over five days, over 7000 residents had experienced respiratory or cardiovascular challenges. It was difficult to breathe, and the death toll increased steadily. A warm air packet had passed high above the town, trapping cooler air below it plus sealing the air pollutants. Donora was not surprised by the dirty air, but this extreme situation was an indicator of an unfortunate trend (The United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020). For every country that had ventured into industrial growth was on a similar path to Donora, and human beings would suffer the consequences. It is during crises such as Donora that people start to notice air pollution and act on it. Scientists began an investigation of the relationship between air pollution, and health and legal authorities began enforcing legislation to reduce the pollution. By 1970, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act Amendments, which was the foundation in which the country’s air quality standards (The United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020).
Currently, policymakers and air quality managers have invested in cutting edge science to come up with regulations and formulate management decisions that will reduce and control air pollution through cost-effective approaches. EPA Air and Energy Research is focussed on compiling and synthesizing research every half-decade to assess how adequate the current air regulations are (The United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020). The organization identifies specific chemicals and the particular sources of air pollution that could affect air quality to advise critical stakeholders. Different nations have also brought in various research programs and initiatives that provide innovative and interdisciplinary measures to dealing with the air pollution challenge. The researchers work together with engineers, physicians, and other scientific experts globally to tackle the challenges in air quality management (The United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020).
Environmental scientists do understand that the earth has its self-regulating mechanisms. In the atmosphere, the mechanisms will cause the sequestration of carbon and other pollutants, achieving a balanced ecosystem that is not affected. However, an increased impact of human activities has made it hard for the planet to solve the balance permanently. In this case, human beings add pollutants to the air faster than the natural mechanisms of the earth. The outcomes are seen in acid rain, smog, global warming, and health challenges due to exposure to harmful pollutants. Therefore, if human beings are planning to continue living sustainably on the planet, then handling the causes of pollution should be the objective.
Jared Diamond, “Theory of Societal Collapse.”
According to Diamond (2003), the prosperity and collapse of many human societies pose the question of what happened. Diamond would identify that environmental factors do play a significant role in the destruction of traditional societies. In understanding the ecological role of the collapse of communities, he lists five primary things. They include environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly neighbors for trade, and cultural response (Diamond, 2003). The way society would react to these issues then determined their collapse or prosperity.
While this theory was based on ancient societies, the global community is also in the face of a similar situation; collapse or prosperity (Diamond, 2003). The environmental challenges of the past could be different from those of today, but the call to protect it remains. Globalization is making different communities see the environmental damage happening in other areas. Fortunately or unfortunately, the impact of this degradation affects each individual. A society that chooses to take the initiative for itself and its neighbors will prosper, and the vice versa is true. The sharing of information that can happen today means that stakeholders do have the resources required to deal with environmental pollution.
The Primary Causes of Air Pollution
The causes of air pollution can be divided into two: primary and secondary pollutants. Primary pollutants occur from primary sources that are the direct result of industrial emissions or volcanic eruptions. Conversely, secondary pollutants come from the intermingling and reactions of primary pollutants, such as when emissions of carbon react with water vapor to create smog. The different causes of pollution are described below:
1. Natural Causes: the natural forms of pollution arising from the naturally occurring phenomena (Williams, 2016). These activities are periodic, prevailing in particular circumstances, and not human-made hence subject to natural cycles. The fact that they are part of the natural climatic conditions means that they are sustainable for an extended period.
● Dust and Wildfires: in large tracts of open land containing little or no vegetation due to dry weather conditions, wind can naturally create dust storms (Williams, 2016). The particulate matter is added to the air causing a natural warming effect, which becomes a health hazard to living species. Furthermore, when the particulate matter is spread to areas with natural vegetation, they become a hindrance to photosynthesis.
Wildfires naturally occur in wooded areas during prolonged dry seasons due to lack of precipitation. Smoke and carbon (IV) oxide coming from these fires lead to high carbon levels in that atmosphere. This results in more significant warming, causing the greenhouse effect.
● Volcanic Activity: these eruptions significantly cause air pollution as they produce large amounts of sulfur, chlorine, and ash products (Williams, 2016). Their release to the atmosphere is picked up by the wind and dispersed across large areas. Compounds such as sulfur dioxide typically have a natural cooling effect since they can reflect solar radiation.
2. Anthropogenic causes; these are by far the most significant contributors to air pollution as they arise from human activities (Williams, 2016). Human beings are mainly using fossil fuels excessively, engaging in heavy industry, poor waste management practices, modern agricultural practices emitting pollutant gases, among others.
● The combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, pollutes air substantially. Fossil fuels in manufacturing firms, power plants, waste incinerators, among others, use fuel-burning heating devices. Industries are known to account for 21% of greenhouse gas emissions, while the generation of electricity leads to another 31% of emissions (Williams, 2016). Gasoline burning automobiles will release carbon(IV) oxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and water vapor that are also pollutants.
● Agriculture and Animal Husbandry: The cultivation of crops and livestock occurs from a combination of factors that includes the production of methane by cattle. Human beings have done extensive deforestation looking for pastureland. Cutting trees means that air would not be cleaned of carbon, which is an air pollutant. Agriculture is responsible for 24% of the emissions without including the carbon (IV)oxide that would have been removed from the atmosphere by ecosystems.
● Waste: The generation of methane is typical in landfills, which is a greenhouse gas, asphyxiant, highly flammable, and increasingly hazardous (Williams, 2016). When landfills are not checked, they become breeding grounds for the pollutant. The situation is worsened by population growth and urbanization that leads to increased waste levels and the need for more landfills.
Figure 2: Sources of Emissions of Air Pollutants with a Case of the United States in 2002
The Impact of Air Pollution on Humanity
Concerns about the impact of air pollution have a long history, specifically on human history and the established environment. Athens and Rome first voiced the concerns. Large numbers of people who could crowd in urban areas, smoke, and other noxious fumes from households and manufacturing works were considered to be playing significant air pollutants (Mosley, 2014). These emissions started to darken skies, and an alarm of air pollution was raised.
Nonetheless, the situation worsened in the Industrial revolution. As early as the mid-years of the 19th century, higher coal intensity had been associated with high mortality rates that come from respiratory ailments among the individuals of old ages and very young ones (Mosley, 2014). If the coal intensity increased by just 1%, this would hike the death rates of infants by one in every 100 births. The challenges of air pollution in India and China currently is comparable to Britain in the 19th Century (Mosley, 2014). For the survivors, they would suffer repeated respiratory illnesses, stunted growth in children, and shorter adult stature. However, even with the harm air pollution was causing health, the existing laws at the time were fragile and ineffective. It is the mid-twentieth disaster in London, Great Smog, that had caused extensive damage to human health that strict national laws to reduce smoke and clear skies of the industrial countries (Hatton. 2017).
The effects of air pollution on humanity in the 19th and 20th centuries were mainly local and regional. However, after World War II, several threats such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and photochemical smog were noted. These effects were transnational and global (Hatton, 2017). Research by Kunzli indicated that there was an increase in respiratory health problems in the late years of the 20th century and the first decade in the 21st century. Apart from health implications, air pollution does affect one’s income substantially. The increasing need for healthcare increases the costs of health insurance and out of pocket expenses. A study by RAND Corporation would find that 30000 individuals in California were admitted to a healthcare facility between 2005 and 2007 due to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and cardiovascular issues (Hunt, 2017). 75% of the cases were related to high levels of delicate particulate matter, while the remaining 25% was due to top ozone layers. These health challenges cost the facilities, insurance organizations, and the employment fraternity over $193 million for care (Hunt, 2017). The financial expenses coming from the health effects of air pollution are incredibly high and increase continuously.
Figure 3: An illustration of the Respiratory Illnesses Related to Air pollution
Source: (World Health Organization, 2020)
For the past ten years, the implications of air pollution are analyzed in terms of the impact it will have on the subjective well-being and quality of life. The stakeholders acknowledge the fact that public health is still compromised by the respiratory illness arising from air pollution (Darcin, 2017). However, a holistic view of the implications is prudent. Subjective well-being encompasses life’s happiness, satisfaction, and happiness. An individual’s attitude and experience with environmental issues will affect one’s well being. A lower level of subjective well-being compromises the quality of life one is living (Darcin, 2017). Several research studies have found that environmental degradation negatively affects an individual’s SWB, which means they live lower levels of quality life. In this case, the world will be filled with unhappy individuals roaming around the world by not suffering physically alone but also mentally (Darcin, 2017).
The future is dependent on the regulations and policies implemented in the fight against air pollution. Key stakeholders globally need to make air pollution a priority in their systems. The main objective is to achieve constant improvement in the quality of life for individuals. This will be achieved if they breathe in clean air.
Air pollution has a significant impact on human health, financial levels, and the general well-being of the individual. This impeded their prosperity level, the prosperity levels of their countries, and on the global scale. Control in the air pollutants should be a priority for the governments. Key stakeholders, such as legislature and policymakers, should update their regulations on air pollution. A robust environmental organization is also needed to lead positive changes in the environment. Failure of which, the global space will have to endure the long term consequences of not mitigating air pollution from the early stages.
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Darçın, M. (2017). How air pollution affects subjective well-being. Well-being and Quality of Life: Medical Perspective, 211.
Diamond, J. (2003, July 17). Why societies collapse › science features (ABC science). Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2003/07/17/2858655.htm
Hatton, T. (2017). Smoke pollution and health in the 19th century. Retrieved from https://voxeu.org/article/smoke-pollution-and-health-19th-century
Hunt, J. (2019, October 4). Air pollution could be affecting our health and wallets. Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/health-effects-of-air-pollution-4772278
Mosley, S. (2014). Environmental history of air pollution and protection. The Basic Environmental History (pp. 143-169). Springer, Cham.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, January 21). History of air pollution. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/air-research/history-air-pollution
Williams, M. (2016, April 14). What causes air pollution? Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2016-04-air-pollution.html