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The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) reanalysis shows the average PM2.5 surface concentrations for 2003–2022 and the anomalies (absolute differences) in 2022 compared with the mean values for 2003–2022. Source: European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF)/CAMS. Source: World Meteorological Organization

Air Quality

Fine Particulates Are Slowly Killing Us All

Fine particulates are a product of combustion that have serious health consequences, including shorter lifespans.

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Fine particulates are tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in size created when fossil fuels are burned. They are so small they are invisible to the naked eye, yet they are all around us. Because they are so small, they can pass directly into the blood stream in our lungs. Studies snow fine particulates affect our brains and our hearts as well as our lungs.

The annual Air Quality Life Index from the Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) at the University of Chicago published on September 1, 2023 claims that fine particulates shorten the lives of people living in parts of Asia by five years on average. Among the findings is that reducing the concentration of fine particulates pollution in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, the average person would add 2.3 years onto their life expectancy.

Fine Particulates & Human Health

The report also found that pollution from fine particulates remains the world’s greatest external risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy comparable to smoking, three times that of alcohol and unsafe water, and five times that of transport injuries. This year’s study names six countries — Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia — as responsible for three-quarters of the impact on human health related to fine particulates.

In his latest Substack post, Bill McKibben says he was shocked to learn people who live in Delhi, the most polluted big city on the planet, are living 11.9 fewer years because of air pollution. Across the region, particulate pollution levels are currently more than 50% higher than at the start of the century and now overshadow other health risks, according to the AQLI report. “Every breath that people take is killing them, every hour of every day,” McKibben writes.

Al Jazeera says the study finds that rapid industrialization and population growth have contributed to declining air quality in South Asia, where particulate pollution levels are currently more than 50% higher than at the start of the century and now overshadow dangers posed by larger health threats.

People in Bangladesh, the world’s most polluted country, stand to lose 6.8 years of life compared to 3.6 months in the United States, according to the study, which uses satellite data to calculate the impact of an increase in airborne fine particles on life expectancy. India is responsible for about 59% of the world’s increase in pollution since 2013, the report said, as hazardous air threatens to shorten lives further in some of the country’s more polluted regions.

Reducing global levels of lung-damaging airborne particles, known as PM 2.5, to levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) could raise average life expectancy by 2.3 years, or a combined 17.8 billion life years, the report said. An average resident of Pakistan would gain 3.9 years from meeting the WHO guidelines of limiting average annual PM 2.5 concentration to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, while someone in Nepal would live 4.6 years longer if the guideline was met, according to the report.

China, meanwhile, has worked to reduce pollution by 42.3% between 2013 and 2021, the report said, highlighting the need for governments to generate accessible air quality data to help bridge global inequalities in accessing tools to combat pollution

Fine particulates don’t just come from burning fossil fuels, of course. Trillions of them come from brake dust and from the tread of tires as they wear during use. But it is fair to say the vast majority are derived from combustion. Diesel engines in particular are sources of fine particulates — the same diesel engines that power the majority of the world’s heavy trucks, buses, ships, locomotives, and construction equipment. The fact that they are invisible makes them no less harmful to human health.

Global Heating Makes Pollution Worse

On September 6, 2023, the World Meteorological Organization issued a special Air Quality And Climate Bulletin, warning that extreme heat in many parts of the world is making air pollution worse.  Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, the bulletin says. Extreme heat, compounded by wildfires and desert dust, is having a measurable impact on air quality, human health and the environment, it says.

The bulletin puts the spotlight on heatwaves in order to draw attention to the fact that it is not just high temperatures which are a hazard. The impacts of resulting pollution are often overlooked but are just as pernicious, it warns. Heatwaves triggered wildfires in the northwestern United States and heatwaves accompanied by desert dust intrusions across Europe both led to dangerous air quality in 2022.

“Heatwaves worsen air quality, with knock-on effects on human health, ecosystems, agriculture and indeed our daily lives,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas. “Climate change and air quality cannot be treated separately. They go hand-in-hand and must be tackled together to break this vicious cycle. This bulletin relates to 2022. What we are witnessing in 2023 is even more extreme. July was the hottest ever month on record, with intense heat in many parts of the northern hemisphere and this continued through August,” he said.

“Wildfires have roared through huge swathes of Canada, caused tragic devastation and death in Hawaii, and also inflicted major damage and casualties in the Mediterranean region. This has caused dangerous air quality levels for many millions of people, and sent plumes of smoke across the Atlantic and into the Arctic,” Taalas added.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, and this trend is expected to continue in the future. There is growing scientific consensus that heatwaves will increase the risk and severity of wildfires.

“Heatwaves and wildfires are closely linked. Smoke from wildfires contains a witch’s brew of chemicals that affects not only air quality and health, but also damages plants, ecosystems and crops  — and leads to more carbon emissions and so more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” says Dr Lorenzo Labrador, a WMO scientific officer in the Global Atmosphere Watch network which compiled the bulletin.

The Takeaway

In New England 20 years ago, it was common to hear this lament from Boston sports fans: “The Red Sox killed my father and now they’re slowly killing me.” The Red Sox were notorious for experiencing a sudden loss of potency after Labor Day, a phenomenon that came to be known as “the September swoon.” Some years, the September swoon started in July. The foibles and failures of the BoSox may have led to the untimely demise of some fans, but it is nothing compared to what rising air pollution and the level of fine particulates in the air will do.

We have had this discussion many times here at CleanTechnica, and it always draws comments from some readers who point out that burning fossil fuels has sparked the greatest increase in wealth in history, which in turn has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

There is merit to that argument, but it fails to account for the massive damage to the Earth’s environment burning all that coal, oil, and gas has done and continues to do. Every day that we make fossil fuels the basis of our global economy inexorably leads to the premature deaths of thousands of people and unendurable suffering for many others.

Acknowledging the benefits to society from burning fossil fuels in the past is no reason to continue embracing them in the future. We have created a system that kills people. We have access to clean energy technologies that do not make negative health outcomes one of their embedded features.

The path forward is clear. Stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. We know what to do, so let’s do it — while there is still time.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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