Air quality, why even bother worrying about it right? What if I told you that over 50% of the cities in high-income countries do not live up to the WHO air quality guidelines. If we look at the low- and middle income countries, those 50% increase to 98%. Now, is it time to worry about this? I think so.

Pollution is felt by everyone

Air pollution is not a distant problem, experienced only by Europeans when they travel. As the 10th biggest health risk in Sweden, a country known for the quality of its air, air pollution is a challenge we all face and one that we must face together. That is because air doesn’t respect borders, we as nations set up.

Pollution from coal mining in Northern England mainly affects communities in The Netherlands. The haze season in Singapore and Malaysia is largely caused by illegal agricultural fires due in Indonesia. Understanding that air pollution is a global issue, with national consequences, is the first step towards empowering us as individuals to improve the air we breathe.

Where is most affected?

The WHO has pinpointed the fastest developing nations as the countries with the highest rates of air pollution. That’s not a surprise, considering the level of industrialisation and urbanisation taking place in many cities in these countries. According to World Urbanization Prospect, by 2030 trends predict that 68 cities in India will have a population of more than 1 million. When looking at the table below, which details the most polluted cities in the world according to WHO PM 2,5 estimates, the numbers become staggering and especially so for India.

  1. Zabol, Iran
  2. Gwalior, India
  3. Allahabad, India
  4. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  5. Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia
  6. Patna, India
  7. Raipur, India
  8. Bamenda, Cameroon
  9. Xingtai, China
  10. Baoding, China
  11. Delhi, India
  12. Ludhiana, India
  13. Dammam, Saudi Arabia
  14. Shijiazhuang, China
  15. Kanpur, India
  16. Khanna, India
  17. Firozabad, India
  18. Lucknow, India
  19. Handan, China
  20. Peshawar, Pakistan

Developed nations

That doesn’t mean those in developing nations are safe either. As one Economist article highlighted, living in London damages your lungs to the same degree as six years of smoking, regardless of your age or health. And in France, according to a study by France's national health agency, air pollution kills 48,000 people each year. Not surprisingly, cities such as Paris has therefore enforced driving bans in the past when smog levels get particularly bad.

Photo Patrick Kovarik for AFP

Hyper local pollution

But bad air pollution in a city can vary even more locally, depending on the time of day, seasonal heat, wind and so on. There are loads of cool tricks you can implement to improve the quality of the air you breathe and we will dive into those in a later episode. For now, let Malin Täppefur, the environmental administration in Stockholm, Sweden, explain how local these variations in pollution can get.

“People often tend to walk on the lee side of the street to find shelter from the wind, however there the level of pollution is elevated. To breathe the cleanest air, always walk on the windy side.”

Countryside pollution

If you live in the countryside and are reading this blog thinking ‘Lucky I don’t live in a big city!’ I unfortunately have bad news for you. Although you may have a lower PM rate, you will most likely be a hotspot for ground level ozone i.e. BAD OZONE. This is due to:

“...that ozone is consumed in the city where it oxidizes with vehicles emission, among others carbon monoxide. The ozone that not is consumed is transported to the countryside where levels elevate.”

as Karin Sjöberg, the Swedish Institute of the environment puts it. Well at least you can blame the city for all your problems...

Pollution has no borders

Although it may be caused by regional factors, the effects are felt everywhere. The USA for instance, feels the effects of China’s pollution problem, through changing weather, whereas South Korea and Japan are completely smothered by it.

So when reading back over how air pollution manifests itself globally, there are no clar answers. The the pollutants themselves, the geography of pollution is dirty, dangerous and unpredictable. Whether you are from Delhi or London, the effects of air pollution will continue to destroy your life. That is, unless you take matters into your own hands.

Photo Leon Neal for AFP