Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change. Large-scale urbanization and economic development have been largely reliant on burning fossil fuels, which are unsuitable for the planet and are causing massive human respiratory health problems. In fact, global assessments of ambient air pollution suggest hundreds of millions of healthy life years are lost, with the greatest attributable disease burden seen in low and middle-income populations.
Clear Evidence of the Damage Air Pollution Inflicts on Human Health
If countries around the world would agree to implement new air quality regulations, massive respiratory problems and deaths globally could be prevented each year. That’s the conclusion of recent World Health Organization (WHO) research, which also produced guidelines for improving air quality. And those guidelines haven’t updated in 15 years — oops.
The culprit is fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5 — about 30 times smaller than a human hair. It’s the tiniest pollutant, yet it’s also one of the most dangerous. The damage starts as soon as a human inhales it, which begins a journey deep into lung tissue and even the bloodstream. It is often a causal factor in asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses — including as contributing to health burdens caused by Covid-19.
The WHO recommends that PM 2.5 should be halved in the world’s air — from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5.
In 2016, around 4.1 million premature deaths — more than half of the total deaths attributable to air quality issues — were associated with fine particulate matter. If the 2021 air quality guidelines had been applied then, nearly 80% fewer PM 2.5-related premature deaths would have occurred. That’s 3.3 million more living, breathing, and contributing members of society.
And PM 2.5 isn’t the only major health and climate-damaging pollutant to get the attention of the WHO. PM 10 — particulate matter larger than PM 2.5 — as well as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide can trigger health problems, both outdoor and indoor. Some air pollutants persist in the atmosphere for as little as a few days to months.
WHO’s new guidelines recommend air quality levels for 6 pollutants that have emerged as producing the greatest negative health effects from exposure. When action is taken on these so-called classical pollutants — particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), it also has an impact on other damaging pollutants.
Dorota Jarosińska, the WHO technical lead who helped develop the new global guidelines, commented to CNN, “These guidelines reinforce the need for urgent action that would benefit the health of all, including vulnerable populations. This creates a triple-win scenario for the benefit of air quality, climate action, and health and is one of the elements postulated by WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from Covid-19.”
Then again, Tarik Benmarhnia, a climate change epidemiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said the new guidelines could have been more ambitious than just reducing air quality threshold levels.
Calling the scope of the new update “a bit underwhelming,” Benmarhnia said, “There is a lot of evidence that’s been produced in the last few years showing that even at the lowest levels of air pollution, including PM 2.5 and nitrogen dioxide, there is still a huge impact at the population level.”
The Fossil Fuel / Fine Particulate Matter Connection
Fine particulate matter comes from sources such as the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. With clearer insights on pollution and emissions sources than ever before, WHO is calling on world leaders to phase out fossil fuels, particularly coal and biomass-fuel combustion.
“Much of air pollution comes from the same sources that are driving climate change, mainly from burning of fossil fuels,” Jarosińska said. “Therefore, addressing air pollution goes hand in hand with the global climate action — efforts to improve air quality will contribute to climate change mitigation. In turn, climate change mitigation efforts also improve air quality.”
Michael Greenstone and colleagues at the University of Chicago developed the Air Quality Life Index, which converts air pollution levels into their impact on life expectancy. “Coal is the source of the problem in most parts of the world,” says Greenstone. “If these costs were embedded in prices, coal would be uncompetitive in almost all parts of the world.”
Major oil companies have been aware of the health risks associated with fine particulate matter for decades. Yet, instead of being noble and addressing the problem, they poured money into disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the likes of Charles Koch’s Heartland Institute and the American Petroleum Institute.
Around the world, people of color and low-income communities suffer disproportionately from air pollution. A recent study found that 78% of Black Americans are exposed to higher-than-average concentrations of pollution from every type of source, including industry, agriculture, construction, and vehicles. These same communities also face the greatest impacts of the climate crisis.
Benmarhnia said it’s important to note that the new update is not a “one size fits all” solution since countries are not made equal in terms of air quality and the different climate disasters they face.
“Registering inequalities in terms of exposure but also in terms of susceptibility impacts associated with air pollution is important,” he said. “Hopefully, the next guidelines will be a little bit more comprehensive in taking into account the heterogeneity of sources of emission and the composition of particulate matter in the context of climate change.”
Final Thoughts about Air Pollution & Fossil Fuels
Earlier this year, when US President Biden spoke out about the petrochemical facilities that dump out the large quantities of toxic pollution onto predominantly Black communities, there was an uproar from legislators who accused Biden of denigrating these areas. What was really happening was that these legislators were engaging in subterfuge to protect the petrochemical complexes that support their candidacies. Fossil fuel companies don’t really want the citizens in their areas to know about how manufacturing processes pollute air and land.
But all is not lost.
- 134 environmental, public health, and advocacy organizations have urged President Biden to direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use the full power of sections 111(b) and 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to reduce methane air pollution from new and existing sources of oil and gas development by 65% by 2025.
- The Environmental Integrity Project strives to reduce toxic releases and greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production, processing, refineries, and petrochemical plants through a mix of advocacy, regulatory work, and strategic litigation.
- Earthjustice has been fighting to force industrial polluters to follow laws that were created to protect communities from unhealthy levels of air pollution. Through their work in the courts, they’ve forced the US EPA to update many outdated health standards that will reduce air pollution including boilers, oil refineries, and coal-fired power plants.
And that’s just a short list of the virtuous organizations and the individuals who participate in them who are trying to make transparent the damage that the petrochemical industry is having on the air we breathe and the land we love. You, too, can help by pushing your government’s leaders to implement stronger regulations, such as those based on guidelines issued by the WHO, to protect us against fine particulate matter.
Image retrieved from NOAA, open source
Graphic provided by WHO