Earth's Declining Air Quality

skyline view of air pollution in LA

Image courtesy of UCLA

Earth's Declining Air Quality
| Published March 26, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

Air pollution is killing seven million people around the world each year, with 80 percent succumbing to heart disease and stroke, NBC News has reported, citing statistics provided by the World Health Organization. If the information and interpretation are correct, this would make air pollution the world's top environmental health risk, making it responsible for one of every eight deaths.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” WHO’s Dr. Maria Neira said in a statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

WHO attributed 4.3 million deaths to indoor air pollution, blaming wood, coal and other open-air fires. Unsafe cooking stoves and fireplaces are used by almost three billion people, primarily women in poorer countries. Only 3.7 million people died from the effects of outdoor air pollution, according a WHO survey.

Bloomberg recently reported on studies which link air pollution to Alzheimer’s disease, and major studies are underway to see if air quality is playing a powerful role in dramatic recent increases in Alzheimer’s cases in some of the world’s most polluted cities, such as Beijing and Linfen. Air quality in Linfen is so bad that some experts say breathing its air is the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. In some parts of urban China, school children cannot play outside because of the pollution.

OAP (particle density) statistics cited from the WHO report claim 40 percent of deaths were from heart disease, 40 percent from stroke, 11 percent from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), six percent from lung cancer and three percent from lower respiratory infections in children.  The indoor air pollution death statistics were similar, although COPD accounted for twice as many deaths.  Children with infections such as pneumonia succumbed at a rate of 12 percent.

However, Science Daily only attributes two million deaths annually to air pollution, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology places the toll for early demise at 200,000 in the United States.

The Institute of Physics journal Environmental Research Letters, which were published July 12, 2013, estimated that approximately two million deaths each year can be directly attributed to air pollution, and they blame 470,000 of those on human-caused increases in ozone. Some scientific and academic studies list Los Angeles as the worst American city for ozone-related pollution. And according to Environment America and several other monitoring groups, the U.S. power plant with the highest output of pollution is the Robert Scherer Coal Power Plant owned by Georgia Power Company. The Juliette, Georgia facility produced 21.3 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2011.

Statistics from various groups are extremely varied, but we can all certainly agree that deaths from air pollution worldwide are numerous. WHO now lists outdoor air pollution as a known carcinogen, with hopes that governments will collectively and aggressively attack the problem. Its report states that air pollution is the world's worst environmental carcinogen, far outpacing second-hand smoke.

Many consider New Delhi or Beijing as the world's worst offenders, but the website Quartz claims provincial locales with heavy industry contain the most polluted air. Ahwaz, in southwestern Iran, has evidently staked claim to the No. 1 position, with 372 parts per million of particles smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10), noting the world's average is 71. The city's 1.2 million residents have Iran's lowest life expectancy.

Iranian meteorology officials are blaming the United States, claiming the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s destroyed agriculture and caused desertification—the process which turns desert from productive to non-productive as a result of poor land management. However, Iran has drained marshes and instituted a national project diverting water from Ahwaz. The government of Iran has also allowed heavy industry in and around the city, including oil, metal and petrochemical processing plants.

The world's recent Number One air pollution story is certainly Paris' massive crackdown on driving, which was instituted Monday (March 24). Hundreds of police monitored traffic, following the federal government's decision to impose major restrictions. Motorists with odd-numbered plates were allowed to drive, with even-numbered plate drivers granted permission on Tuesday.

The government noted air pollution had exceeded safe levels for five consecutive days in Paris and surrounding areas, blaming the problem on cold nights and warm days which prevented pollution from dispersing. Lower traffic levels and changing weather conditions significantly improved the smog problem Monday.

Many Parisians seem to be following the restrictions, but there are numerous rule breakers willing to risk a 22-euro (18 pound) fine. Approximately 700 police were checking at 180 locations around the Paris region, ticketing almost 4,000 drivers by midday Monday, with 27 cars being impounded because drivers refused to cooperate with officers.

Motorcycles were included in the ban, but exceptions were allowed for taxis, commercial electric and hybrid vehicles and for cars carrying three or more passengers.