Why air pollution is the greatest danger to public health in the world

One of the greatest plagues of our time is air pollution, due not only to its impact on climate change but also on public and individual health due to increasing morbidity and mortality rates. . Many pollutants have become major contributors to disease in humans. Among them are particles (PM), particles of varying diameter but very small that enter the respiratory system by inhalation, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reproductive and central nervous system dysfunctions, and cancer.

Although ozone in the stratosphere plays a protective role against ultraviolet irradiation, PM is harmful when present in high concentrations at ground level. In addition, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are all considered to be air pollutants harmful to humans.

Carbon monoxide can even cause direct poisoning when consumed at high levels. Heavy metals such as lead, when absorbed into the human body, can lead to direct poisoning or chronic poisoning, depending on exposure. The diseases caused by the above mentioned substances mainly include respiratory problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, bronchiolitis, lung cancer, cardiovascular events, central nervous system dysfunctions and skin diseases.

Air pollution not only has an impact on climate change, but also on public and individual health due to increasing morbidity and mortality rates.

Last but not least, climate change resulting from environmental pollution affects the geographic distribution of many infectious diseases, as do natural disasters. The only way to tackle this problem is public awareness coupled with a multidisciplinary approach by scientific experts; national and international organizations must face up to the urgency of this threat and propose lasting solutions.

Approach to the problem

The interactions between humans and their physical environment have been widely studied, as multiple human activities influence the environment. The environment is a coupling of the biotic (living organisms and microorganisms) and the abiotic (hydrosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere).

Pollution is defined as the introduction of substances harmful to humans and other living organisms into the environment. Pollutants are noxious solids, liquids or gases produced in higher concentrations than usual that reduce the quality of our environment.

Human activities take a toll on the environment by polluting the water we drink, the air we breathe and the soil in which plants grow. While the industrial revolution was a great success in terms of technology, society and multiple service delivery, it also introduced the production of huge amounts of pollutants emitted into the air which are harmful to human health.

Girl wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid-19
Air pollution account for about nine million deaths per year. | Image credit: Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Without a doubt, global environmental pollution is seen as a multifaceted international public health problem. Social, economic and legislative concerns and lifestyle are linked to this major problem. It is clear that urbanization and industrialization are reaching unprecedented and overwhelming proportions in the world in our time. Human-caused air pollution is one of the greatest risks to public health in the world, given that it account for about nine million deaths per year.

Sources of air pollution

It is known that the majority of environmental pollutants are emitted by large-scale human activities such as the use of industrial machines, power plants, combustion engines and cars. Because these activities are carried out on such a large scale, they are by far the biggest contributors to air pollution, with cars responsible for around 80% of pollution today.

Other human activities also influence our environment to a lesser extent. These activities include field cultivation techniques, gas stations, fuel tank heaters, and clean-up procedures, as well as several natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions, soil eruptions, and forest fires. The classification of air pollutants is based primarily on the sources of pollution. Therefore, it is worth mentioning the four main sources, according to the classification system: main sources, area sources, mobile sources and natural sources.

The main sources include emissions of pollutants from power plants, refineries and petrochemicals, chemical and fertilizer industries, metallurgical and other industrial plants and, finally, municipal incineration.

Indoor sources include household cleaning operations, dry cleaners, printing houses and gas stations.

environmental pollution

Mobile sources include automobiles, cars, railways, airways, and other types of vehicles.

Finally, natural sources include, as noted earlier, physical disasters such as forest fires, volcanic erosion, dust storms, and farm fires.

However, many classification systems have been proposed. Another type of classification is a grouping according to the recipient of the pollution, as follows:

Air pollution is determined as the presence of pollutants in the air in large quantities for long periods of time. Air pollutants are dispersed particles, hydrocarbons, CO, CO2, NO, NO2, SO3, etc.

Air pollutants

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports six major air pollutants, namely particulate matter pollution, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and lead. Air pollution can have a disastrous effect on all components of the environment, including groundwater, soil and air. In addition, it poses a serious threat to living organisms.

In this vein, our interest is mainly to focus on these pollutants, as they are linked to wider and more serious problems in terms of impact on human health and the environment. Acid rain, global warming, the greenhouse effect and climate change have a significant ecological impact on air pollution.

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