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How Bad Is the Air Pollution Where You Live?

How bad exactly is the air pollution where you live?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
March 28, 2017
Episode #232

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The past several decades have seen some success stories in the way of cleaning up air pollution, including the once contaminated oil refinery in Mexico City and the infamous Los Angeles smog. Although southern Californians are still working toward air that will allow them to breathe easy, you can see how far they’ve come in these historic photos.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) still estimates that adverse health effects due to ambient air pollution killed 3 million people in 2012 making it one of the largest environmental risks to human health. In fact, 98% of cities in low and middle income countries do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. In high income countries that percentage is at 56% or still more than half.

The variation in air quality from country to country is even clearer in the WHO’s map of global ambient air pollution which shows the majority of the US and Canada have WHO Air Quality Guideline levels of less than the recommended maximum of 10 micrograms per cubic meter. In the United States, our clean air is due in large part to regulations on likely polluters inspired and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, our access to clean air in the US could change. The current administration has proposed to eliminate 31% of the annual budget for the EPA, or a total of $2.6 billion. If this budget passes, 1 in 5 EPA employees (~3,000 people) are expected to lose their jobs which could lead to difficulties in assessing and enforcing current regulations.

Although the proposed budget cuts would be felt throughout the EPA, Reuters reports that the president may be drafting an executive order that will specifically work to reduce existing financial benefits in place to encourage industries to reduce their contributions to air pollution.

What causes air pollution?

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the most common sources of outdoor ambient air pollution come from the release of gases and chemicals into the air during energy use and production, like, for example burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, or natural gas by cars, trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, and engines. The EPA breaks down the main types of air pollutants into six categories: ground-level ozone (or smog), particulate matter (or soot), carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Other air pollutants include mercury and benzene found in gasoline.  

Smog forms when the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels combine with sunlight. Thus, rising global temperatures will necessarily lead to an increase in the right conditions for smog to thrive. Particulate matter, or soot, describes tiny solid or gas particles of soil, smoke, dust, and allergens, like pollen and mold. Reports like those from the World Health Organization also incorporate contributions from indoor air pollution sources, like homes that use biomass fuels and coal for cooking and heating.

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