Understanding Air Pollution Causes and Effects (and Impactful Changes You Can Make Today)

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Air quality is an indicator of the planet's health, and it has a direct impact on personal well-being, as well. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day, and up to seven million people lose their lives each year due to air pollution across the globe. These facts can be intimidating, but understanding air pollution causes and effects and learning how you can make changes locally can move the needle to lower these statistics.

Measuring Air Pollution

First, how can we measure air pollution? The Air Quality Index (AQI) provided by AirNow uses the concentration of four major pollutants to determine air quality. These pollutants are ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. The higher the AQI, the greater the threat to public health. Temperature, time of day, and time of year can all contribute to AQI. You can look up past and current AQI levels near you or nearly anywhere in the world at the World's Air Pollution website.

Types of Air Pollution

Air pollution falls into one of two categories: outdoor and indoor. As polluted air moves between outdoor and indoor settings, pollutants can spread, so each type of pollution contributes to the other. Both types have varied causes—some you might not initially suspect.

It's no surprise that industrial factories, power plants, and car exhaust contribute widely to outdoor air pollution. Industrial processes emit both carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide—gases that not only irritate our respiratory systems, but also pollute the ozone. According to AirNow, exhaust is responsible for roughly 75 percent of all carbon monoxide emissions in the United States, and that stat rises to 95 percent in cities. Natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, also pollute the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Household activities can also contribute to air pollution. The EPA explains that asbestos-containing insulation, pesticides, radon, smoke from tobacco products, and fuel-burning stoves are all sources of indoor air pollution. In addition, cleaning products, air fresheners, and paints can leach volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which may also pollute the air in your home, according to the EPA. Without proper indoor air ventilation, these pollutants can linger.

In non-developed countries, indoor cooking and heating using wood, coal, or kerosene contribute widely to air pollution. Sadly, the WHO reports that more than 40 percent of people across the world do not have access to clean cooking fuels, which is why adoption of alternative energy sources is so important.

Person using roller to paint wall

Health Impacts

The American Lung Association equates inhaling ozone pollution to getting a sunburn on your lungs. It can even lead to cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Short-term effects of breathing polluted air include coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, and chest tightness, according to AirNow.

Indoor air pollution can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, cause dizziness, and lead to fatigue, according to the EPA. Respiratory diseases, heart conditions, and cancer can develop down the line after prolonged exposure to indoor pollutants, and the American Lung Association reports that some VOCs can be associated with cancer, too. Ensuring you have adequate air ventilation in your home, testing for radon gas, using your kitchen exhaust fan, and keeping indoor plants that filter the air are all ways to help keep your family safe from these risks.

Children in developing countries carry the greatest burden of pollution-caused health problems. The WHO states that babies who have been exposed to high levels of air pollution in the womb or in early childhood may have a low birth weight or be born prematurely. They're also at risk for stunted lung growth and function as well as behavior disorders and impaired mental and motor development. Supporting measures to implement cleaner air practices across the globe can work toward a healthier future for these individuals.

Environmental Impacts

Air pollution and climate change are tightly linked. According to the American Lung Association, rising air temperatures, drought, and wildfires—all of which are related to climate change—can cause more air pollution. In the United States, California in particular has seen unhealthy levels of particle-related air pollution. However, it's not all bad news: the WHO reports that efforts to reduce fossil fuel combustion can have a deep, positive impact on both air pollution and climate change.

Factory emitting greenhouse gases and air pollution

How to Prevent Air Pollution

The health and environmental impacts of air pollution may seem frightening. While it's harder to make major lifestyle changes—such as installing solar panels or buying an electric car—to help reduce air pollution, there are many simpler ways to make an impact, too. Talk with your family about some changes you can make together. Here are some ideas:

  • Lessen your dependence on your car: ride the bus, bike to work, or telecommute.
  • Contact your electricity provider and ask to switch to green energy. Your energy could even come from a solar or wind farm in a different state!
  • When flying, buy offsets for your airfare.
  • Choose low-VOC paints when remodeling.
  • Seek out cleaning products with low VOCs.
  • Buy local. Join a community-supported agriculture program, shop at the farmers' market, or support local craft fairs to contribute less toward transportation pollution.
  • Think about the source of your purchases. The fewer items you buy that are produced in factories with high emissions, the smaller your carbon footprint will be.

Now that you know about air pollution causes and effects, how are you going to reduce your pollution contributions? Let us know on Twitter!

Image Sources: Pixabay | Pexels | Pixabay

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Whether you and your family are directly affected by air pollution or not, being conscious of your choices and habits can do good for the planet. Taking even small steps to reduce your pollution contributions makes a world of difference.