How we can protect the world from air pollution

Anyone who has been on an airplane (and actually listened to the stewards) knows to; ‘put on your own oxygen mask first, before attending to others.’ Well, in the previous blog post we showed you how to put on your own pollution mask. Now it’s time to attend to the others. Afterall, solving the problem of air pollution for us doesn’t solve the problem of air pollution. That will take a little more work.

Measure air pollution and spread the knowledge

The first step in collectively improving the air we breathe, comes with measuring and spreading knowledge. As a cornerstone of World Health Organization’s (WHO) four bullet road map for an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution comes just by “Expanding the knowledge base” and “Monitoring and reporting”. In this way we may pinpoint hotspots and communicate the risk factors to the public.

Photo Johan Pontén for Stockholms stad

Developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, air quality index (AQI) is one of the most commonly used measure of air pollution. AQI covers the five big bad guys; ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Based on the results of these five pollutants, an individual national index is set, which dictates what level of pollution is healthy vs unhealthy. However, this measure has its fall backs since national indices vary wildly between countries. Nevertheless, having data allows countries to communicate issues to the public, which creates reform. As Michael Brauer, Professor in the School of Population and Public health at The University of British Columbia, puts it:

“Since the high income countries started their measurement, in the last 50 years, the situations have improved. Their air pollution is still a health concern but it has improved a lot. Unfortunately, we see the opposite in the countries that are rapidly developing - many in asia for example.”

And on that note Karin Sjöberg from the Swedish Institute of the environment continues to outline the importance of spreading knowledge:

“With knowledge countries start to make demands and the techniques and equipment will follow.”

Knowledge unevenly spread

Unfortunately, knowledge about air pollution, specifically indoor air pollution hasn’t permeated all parts of the world. The places which are most distant from this knowledge, are also those affected the most. In the regions in the world where household air pollution is worst, women and kids who spend most time in the domestic area are particularly vulnerable. More than 50 % of pneumonia deaths among children under 5 are linked to household air. That’s both terrifying and unacceptable.

But we’re getting there. A recent initiative is the climate and clean air coalition’s campaign #breathelife in collaboration with WHO. A great source of how knowledge spread around the world in a whole new pace now.

Regulation

When public demand reaches a critical mass, regulation tends to follow. The Clean Air Act, created in 1975 by the Environmental Protection Agency, does a fantastic job of taming America’s pollution problem through federal law that regulates air emissions from mobile and stationary sources. You may be saying to yourself ‘I don’t see that regulation being enforced,’ but it’s. Almost everything that is produced or operated in the US is affected by that law, be it your car exhaust, or the factory that made your car exhaust. Although there’s still a long way to go, we are getting there, one less PM at a time.

Business, community and areas where individuals can make a difference

There are many areas in which business and communities can, and already make difference. Areas such as, sustainable transportation, emission reduction, solid waste management, fuels, renewable power, solar electricity and many more.

As for where regulation is not good enough yet, we as individuals can take matters into our own hands. How many people do you know make the conscious decision to cycle to work everyday? Whether it’s for personal gain or the benefits of society, this collective consciousness is one of the major driving forces for improving global air quality. Don’t sit back on the fringes of what might be THE movement of our generation. Leave your car keys at home and get on your bike. At the very least, you will be able to wear spandex.

Spandex wearing individuals are even banding together to form groups or movements to help encourage a happier and healthier life. Bike-To-Work day, for example, is an annual event held across Canada and the US, which promotes a healthy and sustainable alternative to driving. Official organisations like the Clean Air Task Force and the Coalition For Clean now exist. These organisations help spread the knowledge while simultaneously fighting for structural and legal reform.

It actually makes a difference

And the good news is, all this hard work that you, me and everyone else are doing, really makes a difference. The level of air pollution in developed cities is falling, and many in developing nations are catching up. With improvements in technology, education and politics, we are starting to ebb away from the Blade Runner future and into one that looks more like Spike Jonze’s Her. But what are these technologies, these advances in academics. Well kids, stay tuned to find out in our next blog post.

Fredrik Kempe

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