Air Pollution Myths That Might Surprise You

Air Pollution Myths That Might Surprise You

Air pollution is caused by cars and household combustion, industries and waste burning, among others. Although regulations and laws are implemented in most countries, it remains to be high on the list of environmental issues of the last decade.  Here are some myths that might surprise you about air pollution:

1. Air pollution affects people of all ages the same way

According to a report published by UNICEF called “The toxic school run”, the risks and health effects of air pollution are much more dangerous for kids than for adults. One of the reasons is that it harms them during the developing stage of their organs, and this has lifelong health consequences. Exposure at a young age can harm lungs growth, and increase the risk of different breathing conditions like asthma.

Other relevant factors are:

  • Children are shorter than adults, so they are closer to the ground and therefore to the exhaust pipes of vehicles.
  • Young children usually breathe faster than adults, so they take in more air in their body. It was revealed that children might be exposed up to a third more air pollution. This is significant for the children around the world who walk to school every day.
  • Children tend to be exposed to higher doses than adults as they spend more time outside.
  • Children are more likely to live in deprived communities, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of pollution.

2. The only diseases you can get from air pollution are respiratory related diseases

In a study made by Chinese scientists in 2018, the relationship between mental skills, air pollution and age was recorded. They tested people aged 10 and above both in math and verbal skills. At the moment of the test, air quality values were also registered in the corresponding locations. It was found that long term exposure to air pollution interferes with verbal test. The negative effect becomes more pronounced with age, especially for men, and people the less educated are the most affected within men. Also, they stated that this should be added to the total cost of air pollution, since cognitive functions of elderly people are affected, which are critical for running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.

3. Air pollution is not a major cause of death worldwide

The HEI (Health effects institute) report of 2019 called “State of Global Air 2019”, revealed that air pollution:

  • Worldwide, it is the fifth risk factor for mortality 
  • Contributes to more deaths than other risk factors like malnutrition, alcohol use, and physical inactivity.
  •  It reduced life expectancy in 2017 by more than 1 year worldwide.
  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year. Deaths reported were due to mortality from stroke, heart disease and lung cancer, among others.
  • The Lancet Commission also reported that diseases caused by environmental pollution were responsible for 15 times more deaths than from all wars and other forms of violence combined.

4. Due to technology improvements, air pollution deaths are higher now than ever

The platform “Our World in data” allows us to see the evolution of global death rates from air pollution over time between 1990 and 2017. In recent decades, the death rates from total pollution have declined: since 1990 the number of deaths per 100,000 people has nearly halved!

5. People who get sick from air pollution get it from outdoor pollution

According to the WHO, out of the 7 million people who die yearly from environmental pollution, 4.2 million get it from outdoor pollution and the rest (3.8 million) from household pollution.

The emissions that causes premature deaths in households can be related to the following causes:

  • Exposure to smoke from cooking fires,
  • Burning like wood and coal in inefficient stoves
  • Burning kerosene in simple wick lamps

 The WHO calls indoor pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk”.

6. Only the biggest cities around the world are exposed to air pollution

Regarding the WHO air quality values, more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor environmental pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed these limits. All regions of the world are affected, but low-income cities are the most impacted.

According air quality databases, 98% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100.000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. But in high-income countries, the percentage decreases to 56%.

 7. More people die worldwide from air pollution than from smoking tobacco

In the last decades, restrictions were applied in many countries regarding tobacco use. Restaurants and closed spaces do not allow cigarettes use any more. Also their price is more elevated than it was many decades ago, with a 7.06% inflation per year. However, both global consumption and death because of cigarettes smoking haven’t significantly decreased in this period.

According to the WHO, tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 millions of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke

8. People that walk or bike to work are more in risk to air pollution than those who use motorized vehicles (car, motorbike, bus)

It would be easy to think that people who walk or bike are more exposed to outdoor pollution than those who are inside a vehicle. But according to a study made by The Lancelet, people who travel in motorized vehicles are closer to traffic so their exposure to outdoor pollution is higher than those who walk or bike (active commuters).

However, active commuters do have higher inhalation rates and exposure times to outdoor pollutants (because it takes them more time to get to work/home). But still, benefits of physical activity are larger than the risk from an increased inhaled dose of fine particles!

9. The most polluted city in the world is in China

Although China has the highest number of deaths per year due to environmental pollution, New Delhi (India) was the most polluted capital city in the world (in 2019). Among non-capital cities, Ghaziabad (India) was the most polluted city in the world, with a PM2.5 value of 110.2 μg/m³

According to the WHO air quality values, the limit set for PM2.5 is 10 μg/m³. And New Delhi has an average concentration of 98.6 μg/m³!

Another reference values are:

  • Hotan, China: 1 μg/m³.
  • Puyang, China: 4 μg/m³.
  • Rome: 9 μg/m³.
  • Denver, Colorado (USA): 10 μg/m³.

When people are exposed to levels of PM2.5 of 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³ the likelihood of heart and lung problems increases significantly.

10. Environmental pollution related deaths decreased during COVID-19

A study published in Cardiovascular Research estimated that environmental pollution might have increased in average 15% deaths worldwide from COVID-19. This is due to long term exposure to air pollution and its effects in the respiratory sistem and organs.

The percentage is different for each country, depending on the exposure to pollutants. Some other examples mentioned are (percentage of COVID-19 deaths increase due to environmental pollution exposure):

  • China: 27%
  • Germany: 26%
  • France: 18%
  • Brazil: 12%
  • Ireland: 8%
  • Australia: 3%
  • New Zealand: 1%

Prof. Münzel said that when people inhale polluted air, the small polluting migrate from the lungs to the blood. This causes inflammation and severe oxidative stress. Also, the COVID-19 virus enters the body via the lungs, causing damage to blood vessels.

They also mentioned that if long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 virus infection come together then there would be an additive adverse effect on health. This leading to greater vulnerability to COVID-19. Therefore, people who already have heart disease will be more in trouble and this can lead to heart attacks, heart failure and stroke.


Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay

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