Sunday, October 2, 2016

Health Impact of Air Pollution

The World Health Organization (WHO) has just released its latest figures for air pollution worldwide. According to WHO, one specific type of air pollution is associated with over 3 million deaths per year worldwide, not to mention the adverse health effects it produces. It's not ozone or other gaseous pollutants; it's PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). PM 2.5 is especially damaging to the lungs because it is small enough to be drawn into the deepest parts of the lung's airways. In industrial areas, PM 2.5 includes byproducts of diesel fuel combustion and black carbon, a component of soot. In rural areas and in some cities, naturally-occurring dust is a major contributor.

It might surprise you to learn that the highest levels of air-borne particulate matter worldwide are not necessarily in the most industrialized countries. According to the WHO, the highest levels of PM 2.5 are found in Northern Africa, the middle East, India, and parts of Asia. That's because in many of these areas, naturally-occurring dust is a major problem. In the United States, though, the most significant air pollutants are man-made. Major U.S. cities with the worst air are Chicago and Los Angeles; the states with the worst air are Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, in the industrial heartland. You can use WHO's interactive map to find the reported levels of particulate matter in your specific area. The full WHO report can be viewed here.

Admittedly, we're not likely to make much headway against the problem of naturally-occurring dust anytime soon. Nevertheless, adequate monitoring and reporting can at least warn citizens when their air quality is at its worst, and better education can help them take precautions. Man-made pollution is another matter; in addition to monitoring and education, progress can (and should) be made to reduce its occurrence, to the extent it is feasible to do so.

We can pay now to reduce exposure to bad air or we can pay later in health care costs. It's our choice.

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