Air Pollution – The Silent Killer

IR 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

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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Naturally Unhappy Consumers

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

Early hunter gathers consumed to meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter and warmth. In contrast, modern day homo spaiens consume to meet specific desires.

Throughout history material objects have been used to demonstrate wealth and identity. Ancient Egyptians exhibited the wealth of their occupants in tombs.

Our joy of overconsumption can be traced back to Roman times, when substances called emetics were used to induce vomiting during banquets to be able to continue eating – a form of early social bulimia.

Consumerism has its origins in Europe. Early Enlightenment thinkers adopted the Puritan idea that everyday life was invaluable in itself and that God was to be honoured through work as much as prayer. They were committed to progress, human rights, liberty, equality, rational individual utilitarian view of nature. This way of thinking contributed to the industrial revolution and the increase in productivity.

In constrast, the Romantics emphasised aesthetic appreciation, emotional individualism, personal creativity and self-expression. While the instrumental worldview of the early Enlightenment (16-17th Century), the Romantic (18th to 19th Century) idea of an emotional, interior, expressive human beings became a main driver of consumption.

The consumption of goods became an important form of cultural appreciation and a means of self-expression. Emotions, desires and wants were given a new validity. It became respectable to succumb to both desire for, and enjoyment of, material goods. It can be argued that the birth of consumerism was the result of Enlightenment science and the Romantic view of the individual.

Economist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to explain why people seek status and consume material goods such as expensive jewellery, designer clothes and luxury cars that set themselves apart from others.

This is in contrast to consumption that derives its value from the intrinsic worth of a good. Material goods have become important in social comparison and positioning.

Consumer behaviour has been seen as being partly conditioned by sexual and social competition resulting in display and status-seeking behaviour. We tend to gauge our well-being in relative terms. Evidence suggests that indivduals feel worse off when other in their neighbourhood earm more. We need to consistently consumer to “keep-up wit the Jones'”.This is behaviour is seen as being pathological.

According to Professors Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran greater affluence can seriously damage a nation’s health – while we get richer we do not become happier.

Once a country reaches a reasonable standard of living there is little further benefit to be had from increasing the wealth of its population. Their work demonstrates that as a nation becomes wealthier, consumption moves increasingly to buying status symbols with no intrinsic value.

Eaton and Eswaran write:
Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness. But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as ‘Veblen competition’. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier.

Their research helps to explain why levels of happiness and feelings of community in affluent countries have stabilised despite growth in real incomes. For example, despite spectular growth in income in post-war Japan there has been no change in average happiness.

As we own more status symbols we seem to have less time or inclination to help others which damages community and trust. This is essential for the economy and society.

Eaton and Eswaran conclude that our emphasis on economic growth is therefore misplaced. Conspicuous consumption can have an impact not only on people’s well-being and the growth prospects of the economy but also on the planet.

Our overconsumption of the world’s resources is being driven by an insatiable apetitie to consume more and more in the misconception that being richer, and distinguishing ourselves from others, will make us happier.

Only when we tackle this inherent need to consumer and reconnect with nature can we achieve a greener, fairer and happier future for all.


Jackson, T. (2006) Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, London.

© Gary Haq 2010
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World’s Worst Polluted Places

A report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

t767375aA report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

The 2009 World’s Worst Polluted Places: 12 Cases of Cleanup and Success is the fourth on the state of pollution in some of the world’s worst polluted places published by the Blacksmith Institute. It was compiled from nominations received from around the world. The report includes success stories from Chile, China, Domincan Republic, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Russia and Tanzania.

The success stories come from a range of approaches: old-fashioned techniques (such as the removal and replacement of contaminated soil) and innovative ways to recapture mercury vapours. It also reviews technical methods such as chemical interventions, bioremediation and bioaccumulation, which can involve the use of cow dung, molasses and worms.

dominican_cleanupWhile pollution clean-up needs to be an essential part of an overall framework of environmental management, pollution prevention should be the main objective if the developing world is to deliver the policies for healthy citizens, sustainable development and poverty eradication. It is often the poor and socially marginalised who suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating environmental quality. Therefore the focus should on prevention rather than cure.

There is a growing need in developing countries to determine not only the state of environmental quality but to identify cost-effective measures to protect human health and the environment. Details of success projects such as those highlighted in the report can assist developing countries in achieving better environmental quality. They provide concrete examples of key approaches and mechanisms which have been used to clean-up pollution. They can motivate decision-makers to follow a similar course of action or to adapt a particular approach to local context and circumstances.

However, the efforts to clean-up pollution remains a major problem in the developing world and continues to pose risks to human health. With large numbers of people being affected by traditional sources of pollution such as industrial emissions, poor sanitation, inadequate waste management, contaminated water supplies and exposures to indoor air pollution from biomass fuels. These are particularly severe in large urban areas which have to grapple with simultaneous rapid motorisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, increased population and weak institutional capacity and poor infrastructure. 33777293_1

Risks attributable to environmental pollution in the developing world have been estimated to be 15–35 times greater than in developed countries. The World Health Organization has attempted to assess the global burden of disease as a result of environmental pollution in terms of mortality or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

About 8–9% of the total disease burden may be attributed to pollution, but considerably more in developing countries. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene are seen to be the major sources of exposure, along with indoor air pollution.

Problems of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, for example, account for an estimated 6.6% of DALYs in Africa, and 4.7% in south-east Asia, compared with 0.5% in Europe. Indoor air pollution accounts for 4.4% of DALYs in Africa and 3.6% in south-east Asia, compared to 0.4% in Europe. In absolute terms the differences are even more stark.

The total number of DALYs per head of population attributable to these two risk factors in Africa are 29.1 per thousand for unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene and 19.3 per thousand for indoor air pollution; in south-east Asia they are 12.8 and 9.9 per thousand, respectively; in Europe they are 0.8 and 0.6 per thousand, respectively.

Economic development is often seen as the driving force to improve environmental quality in the developing world. However, a key factor in addressing environmental pollution is political will. While policies on paper may look sophisticated and comprehensive the reality is often different on the ground. That is why ensuring policies are enforced and monitored is paramount to preventing pollution in the first place and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Briggs, D. (2003) Environmental pollution and the global burden of disease, British Medical Bulletin, 68:1-24

© Gary Haq 2009
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