AIR pollution is estimated to cause 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. It is a silent killer that is affecting the health, well-being and life chances of hundreds of men, women and children every day.
Poor air quality is a problem not confined solely to cities in the developing world. The majority of developed nations still have an urban air pollution problem.
In China and South Korea citizens are being ordered to stay in doors while authorities struggle to deal with the effects of dust storms – orange dust blown hundreds of miles from drought-struck northern China.
In the UK, a report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee claims that poor air quality in British cities is responsible for up to 50,000 premature deaths. On average poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of the average Briton by up to 7-8 months. Not only is air pollution affecting human health, it is causing significant damage to our natural environment.
The Environmental Audit Committee states that the UK government is not giving adequate priority to air quality. Britain is one of ten European Union (EU) member states that have recently been warned over excessive levels of health-damaging fine particles know as PM10, which can can stay int the lungs for days.
The UK together with Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden could face court action if it fails to meet a European directive limiting these harmful airborne particles.
In the report the Committee argues that the quantified costs of poor air quality used to inform policy are out-dated. Not sufficient account is given to known health effects, treatment costs and environmental damage. In addition, the costs do not take into account the EU fines incurred for failing to meet EU air quality standards.
Climate change has become the sexy air pollution issue that has grabbed the attention of government, media and the public. It is therefore not surprising that local air pollution to some extent has been downgraded and is now considered to be of a lower priority. Unlike climate change, which has long-term effects, urban air pollution tends to have more immediate impact on human health and the environment.
The air pollution we experience today in the majority of Britain’s large cities is a far cry from the very visible smog that London experienced in the times of Sherlock Holmes. The 1952 Great London Smog was a thick “peas souper” that reduced visibility and caused major disruption to the city. The London smog is estimated to have killed about 12,000 people.
Modern air pollution is invisible and is mainly fine particulate matter that is imperceptible to the human eye but deleterious to human health. Industry is responsible for 36 per cent of PM10 followed by road transport which is responsible for 18 per cent. The majority of industrial sources are far away from city centres. Therefore road transport contributes more to public exposure to PM10 in urban areas.
Awareness of air quality is a key challenge. The Environmental Audit Committee highlights that many government departments do not seem to fully understand how their policies might affect air quality, the health and environmental impact of poor air quality and associated economic costs.
The Committee’s report calls for local authorities to do more to tackle poor air quality. They recommend that local authorities be given more information to develop local air quality strategies.
Despite major advances and investment in cleaning the air, the silent killer of air pollution is still prevalent in many developed cities. Since about 61% of the world’s population now live in cities, we urgently need to improve the quality of the air we breath.
After all to breathe clean air is a basic human right that we should all respect.
© Gary Haq 2010
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