We are living in times of unprecedented stress, with compounding overlapping crises that seem to magnify each other. The climate fires in California have added to this mix. One of our favorite stress reducers is outdoor exercise, which for weeks had become impossible for millions of people. With air quality in much of the western states at a zero level, waking up to apocalyptic sunrises from San Francisco to Portland, what we could take for granted is now yet another uncontrollable variable in our lives. Particulate pollution of the type that comes from fires has been linked not only to lung issues but also to higher incidents of Alzheimer’s disease.
Our readers are writing us of having to change HEPA filters every week, of even filtered inside air quality that is disturbing. This is a health issue for people of all ages. Here in the normally clean air of the mountains, we have had days of some horrifically bad air. How will it be effecting the kids, our aging parents? It is just one more uncontrollable variable in our lives that we now have to manage.
If you want to check your local air quality on a daily basis have a look at the BreezeoMeter App. It’s free, and can be used to get a sense of your air in almost any locality in the world. Editors.
Despite years of climatic change action plans and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, the United States has started to witness a decline in air quality due to the ongoing wildfires ravaging the West Coast.
As the country continues to experience these record-breaking wildfires wreaking havoc, the atmosphere is being subjected to massive amounts of ash and smoke, rapidly becoming a point of health concern.
According to environmentalists, wildfires are not the only cause of the recent decline in air quality. A robust economy, global warming, and population growth are some of the other factors contributing to our atmosphere’s sorry state.
At present, it is hard to predict the long-term effects of these factors, as politicians and experts are torn between viewpoints and facts. A section of experts argues the world will replenish itself automatically, while others claim stringent measures have to be applied to save Mother Nature.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution can be defined as the release of pollutants, gases, and particles into the atmosphere that is harmful to human beings’ health and the planet in general. The effects of air contamination can stretch from rising temperatures to an increase in respiratory health complications.
Some of the familiar examples of air pollutants include carbon dioxide, soot, mold, methane, pollen, and smoke. These substances are not harmful at low quantities, but when you are exposed to them in high concentrations they can start to affect your health or even kill you.
Air contamination is not an isolated problem as it affects all of us regardless of status, creed, or tribe. It varies in scale from local to global.
Localized air contamination
This is small-scale air contamination that occurs in a small area. For instance, you are cooking in the kitchen, and you happen to get distracted, leading to you burning the food. The smoke that is emitted can be considered localized air contamination.
Neighborhood air contamination
Your neighborhood sometimes plays a significant role in determining air quality. For instance, the air is generally cleaner in green, leafy suburbs, unlike in highly populated areas.
Regional air contamination
This is the type of air contamination that affects an entire town or city depending on the pollutants’ intensity. Most of the time, the source of air contamination is in a different place, but it is the wind that carries the contaminated air to the town or city. It does not respect any political borders as the effects and source can be located in different towns, cities, or even countries.
Global air contamination
This type of air contamination can occur when the entire planet is affected by human activity and encroachment. Our day-to-day activities can contribute to and impact the ozone layer, environment, and water catchment areas.
In the United States, the Air Quality Index (AQI) is used to measure outdoor air contamination. It does this by rating the atmosphere’s condition across the country based on the intensity of 5 significant impurities: nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, particle pollution, and sulfur dioxide.
Types of air pollution
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are six prevalent air pollutants in the world today. Among the 6, particulate matter and ozone are the most common and most harmful to the environment and human health. Here is the list:
This is a poisonous heavy metal that is found naturally in the environment. Industries and motor vehicle manufacturers are the biggest culprits of lead emission. Although its emissions dropped significantly between the 1980s and late 1990s, it remains a point of concern. When you are exposed to it improperly, it can affect your cardiovascular system, nervous system, immune system, kidneys, and reproductive health.
The ozone comprises three oxygen atoms that are created at ground level when sunlight, oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically. The ozone layer found above the earth’s surface is good ozone as it protects life from direct sun rays. However, ozone found in the atmosphere contains hazardous substances, chemical solvents, and emissions that form clouds of smog that are harmful to societies.
Also known as CO, carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, and non-irritating gas that is very toxic. When inhaled, they usually interfere with oxygen delivery in the body, including the brain and the heart. Most carbon monoxide emissions are emitted from combustion processes.
Also denoted as SO2, sulfur dioxide is a chemical compound emitted mostly from fossil fuels. Also produced by industrial processes and volcanic eruptions, sulfur dioxide can oxidize to acidic rain when it comes into contact with nitrogen dioxide. It is known for the negative effect it has on the respiratory system.
They are one of the EPA’s highly feared emissions as they are known to appear as brown domes of haze over towns and cities. They contribute to the formation of harmful ozone, associated with adverse effects on the human respiratory system.
Particulate matter (PM)
Also known as soot, this compound is a hazardous mixture of tiny dust particles and liquid droplets. They are mostly found near industries, dusty roadways, power plants, and forest fires.
Leading causes of air contamination
Air contamination can come as a result of both human and natural actions. Events such as forest fires, natural radioactivity, pollen dispersal, and soil erosion are some of the natural events that cause air contamination. However, a large percentage of air contamination is attributed to human activities.
1. Motor vehicle emissions
Vehicles are the number one source of air contamination today thanks to their fossil fuel emissions. Airplanes, ships, trains, trucks, cars, and motorcycles all burn many fossils to operate.
Although being backbones for economies, industries contribute a significant percentage of air contamination. Hazardous emissions such as hydrofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide are usually discharged by industries, contributing to global warming and other adverse effects on the ecosystem.
Trees and forests are inhalers of carbon dioxide through the carbon sequestration process. This assists in getting rid of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, hence improving the air quality.
According to environmentalists, tobacco smoke can contain more than 35 carcinogens, making it a fatal air pollutant. It is always advisable to use air purifiers to ensure other members of your family do not suffer from the adverse effects of second-hand smoke.
5. Household and farm chemicals
Insect and pest killers, fumigating chemicals, paint supplies, and fertilizers, among many other substances used in homes, offices, and farms, emit chemicals that are harmful to the environment and air.
With the recent news that the smoke coming from the wildfires is quickly making its way to the East Coast, some areas have started experiencing hazy skies and tangerine sunsets. Many people are wondering what they can do to avoid suffering the harmful effects of air contamination.
According to EPA, people residing in those areas should stay indoors with filtered air, ensuring their windows and doors are closed.
On a broader scale, governments can commit to limit carbon emissions and greenhouse gases according to the Paris Agreement that was ratified on 4th November 2016. Proper forest management is also vital to prevent these deadly forest fires in the future.