We can do a lot of things to take care of our health and prolong our life expectancy, but unfortunately, there are some things that are harder to control. One thing that is becoming an increasing concern among health organizations is air pollution, which can shave months, and even over a year, off of the average life expectancy.
While some countries are affected more than others, air pollution is a global issue that affects people everywhere. A recent study found that here in the US, air pollution reduces life expectancy by about 4 months, while it’s estimated to be up to 1.9 years in Egypt and 1.5 years in India. The Government of Canada estimates that 14 400 deaths per year are linked to poor air quality.
Air pollution is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels for energy use and production, and the main outdoor pollutants are fine particles (PM 2.5), which can penetrate deep into the respiratory system, ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
It’s widely acknowledged that these pollutants are a major contributor to climate change, and in an unfortunate feedback loop, air pollution doesn’t just contribute to climate change but is also exacerbated by it. John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project, part of the Climate and Clean Air program at the Natural Resources Defence Council, says“Air pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and methane raises the earth’s temperature,” Walke says. “Another type of air pollution is then worsened by that increased heat: Smog forms when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation.”
More recent research has shown the effects that the pollution has not just on our environment but on our personal health. In addition to the potential for a reduced life span, air pollution also leads to a host of health problems including cardio and respiratory conditions, increased fatigue, and headaches. Some groups of people are more susceptible to adverse effects from air pollution than others, and they include outdoor workers, pregnant women, older adults and the elderly, children under 14, and individuals with lung or heart diseases.
Unfortunately, things may be getting worse, not better. The Trump administration is currently proposing a loosening of pollution controls from coal fired power plants, which would override the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to begin switching energy sources from coal to cleaner solutions. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this new plan could lead to up to 1400 premature deaths annually. Previously, it was estimated that the Clean Power Plan would prevent between 1500 to 3600 deaths annually by 2030.
Moving to cleaner energy sources can help not only reduce air pollution but also greenhouse gases, meaning both our health and the environment will benefit. Joshua Apte, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin was the lead author of the study that looked at the reduced life expectancy caused by air pollution. He told the New York Times,“Indeed, the near- and long-term health benefits of cleaner and more efficient energy use are one of the best co-benefits of tackling climate change, as we will lead healthier and longer lives.”
His team also found that indoor air pollution, caused by burning wood, charcoal, and animal dung, can have a huge impact on health, and can take an additional 1.2 years off of a person’s life. This is common in South Asian countries, where these materials are commonly burned.
While big changes have to be made globally to improve the quality of our air, there are things we can do individually to reduce air pollution. The first is to reduce your contribution to pollution. Things like taking public transportation, carpooling, walking or biking instead of driving, limiting the use of your fireplace, and using natural energy sources in our own home are great ways to start.
You can also care of your own indoor pollution by making sure your home is free from tobacco, fireplace smoke, mold, asbestos, radon (an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas that can seep into buildings, and more. Some of these you can ensure on your own, but you can also bring in an expert to be sure that your home is free from these pollutants. You can also improve air quality by making sure you turn on your fan every time you shower, and your range hood every time you cook.
Take care of your own personal health by avoiding areas, whenever possible, that are highly polluted, especially when you’re engaging in physical activity. When we exercise, our breathing becomes deeper and faster, so we inhale more pollutants. Areas to avoid when you’re exercising include busy roads, industrialized areas, and residential areas on winter nights, as many people will have fireplaces and wood stoves running, which emit pollutants into the air.
Many cities also have air quality indexes, so you can check the air quality on a given day. If you are particularly prone to cardio and respiratory issues, it is a good idea to stay inside as much as possible when air quality is particularly bad.
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