It’s all around us, but do you ever take the time to think about the air you breathe? Unfortunately, air quality is worth our attention—for all the wrong reasons. In 2015, pollution in the air and water was responsible for more than 9 million deaths, killing more people than war, road injuries, malaria, terrorism, drugs, and alcohol. Pollution is now the world’s largest risk factor for disease and death. It’s not a new problem, but fortunately, we now have a way to fight back.
Early Concern Over Air Quality
Considering the impact of air pollution isn’t exactly new. In fact, since the time of Hippocrates, ca 400 BC, humans have worried about how our activities influence air quality. Indoor cooking and the provision of warmth were some of the first main culprits of adverse air quality and some of the most prominent thinkers of the time remarked on how air pollution could impact health. In fact, Seneca (ca AD 63-65) recorded the following:
“As soon as I escaped from the oppressive atmosphere of the city, and from that awful odor of reeking kitchens… I perceived at once that my health was mending… So I am my old self again, feeling now no wavering languor in my system, and no sluggishness in my brain.”
Since this time, however, global concerns have grown—especially following the rise of industry.
The Industrial Revolution and Worsening Air Quality
From the eighteenth century onwards, we’ve collected measurements that indicate worsening air quality, especially in urban and industrial centers. Over the span of hundreds of years, scientists have assessed particulate matter and the chemical characteristics of gasses in the air. Generally speaking, the more a population in a certain region grew, the worse the air quality became.
The industrial revolution (1760-1840) is when primary pollutants really started to impact the world’s growing cities. Burning coal significantly increased emissions of smoke, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ammonia. Coupled with excess manure from horses and poor methods of sewage treatment, many global cities had air quality problems.
The Mid-1900s and New Sources of Air Pollution
The grime of the city was something people got relatively used to—just read a book by Dickens or Conan Doyle to notice smog as a backdrop! But in 1952, the Great Smog of London almost totally reduced visibility in the city for five days. The industrial pollution was exacerbated by high-pressure weather conditions, leading to the death of some 12,000 citizens.
This event, along with similar threats to air quality elsewhere, contributed to regulation and clean air acts. Public concerns, and laws to address them, were common in Europe and North America, and similar laws were also passed in Hong Kong and India.
While efforts to clean up urban air contributed to better health outcomes, global air quality was still degrading. In cities like London, emissions peaked in the middle of the century. However, while Europe and North America reached peak levels of pollution, those in Asia and the Pacific region continued to rise, making the area the main global source of air pollution.
Worse, scientists began to understand that air pollution doesn’t stay confined to a specific region. Sulfur dioxide, in particular, had wide-ranging impacts on natural vegetation—even when the source wasn’t close by.
Our recognition that air pollution has no boundaries, came about most notably in 1955, when Swedish scientists attributed acid rain in the country to sulfur emissions coming from the UK, Germany, France, and Poland. Dealing with freshwater acidification and the significant loss of Scandinavian fish populations prompted even more government action.
Addressing The Long-Range Transport and Impacts of Pollutants
While it had perhaps gone on unknowingly for decades, the Stockholm Conference of 1972 was one of the first to recognize the long-range impact of air pollution. Discussion meetings and international conferences were held all over the globe—the first being one in Columbus, Ohio, USA in 1975. And by the 1980s, acid rain was becoming just as problematic in North America as it had been in Sweden.
Coupled with acid rain was a significant decline in forest health. Forests in areas close to high emissions of ozone and sulfur were prone to decline and die-back. In fact, around the 1980s is when we became aware of the ecological impact of a range of pollutants—including ozone.
Awareness of Ozone and its Impact on Health
The degradation of carbon monoxide and VOCs in the presence of nitrogen dioxide produce ground-level ozone. California was one of the first to recognize its impact on vegetation and human health. Children and older folks were specifically impacted by summer periods of high ground-level ozone. Coughs, breathing difficulties, inflamed airways, and aggravated lung diseases are just some of the problems caused by ozone.
This period during the 1990s is when human health became the focus of efforts to improve air quality. At the beginning of the decade, a publication linked human mortality and morbidity to air pollutants, especially particulate matter (PM).
Air Quality Challenges in the Twenty-First Century
While a range of pollutants—including PM—have been on the decline in the US since 1980, they’re still on the rise in other parts of the world. They’re also still a very real threat. Particulate matter, previously referred to as “smoke, “soot,'' “fume,” and “haze,” is the main contributor to negative human health consequences. PM2.5 alone (fine particulate matter) has been associated with 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide each year.
Unfortunately, 99% of the world’s population reside in regions where PM2.5 exceeds World Health Organization guidelines. This has been linked to a range of health problems, from respiratory inflammation and cancer, to heart attack and stroke, to increased risks of miss-carriage.
Worse, even low levels of a range of common air pollutants are now understood to contribute to human health harm. Even in areas where particulate matter is less of a problem, high levels of nitrogen dioxide are associated with respiratory complications and diseases, and even hospital admissions.
What to Do in the Face of Air Quality Concerns?
With all of this outdoor pollution (and knowing that indoor air pollution can be up to 100 times worse), do you feel safe and protected? Fortunately, peace of mind is easier than you think. A good-quality air purifier isn’t as much a luxury as it is a must these days. Offering powerful purification and protection, AirDoctor is your solution to air quality concerns. Breathe easier with us—even amidst growing concerns about global air quality.