At 8:30pm local time on Saturday, March 28, people in cities around the world – across 172 countries – turned off their lights and screens for one hour. This was for Earth Hour, meant to show support for tougher action to confront climate change. In Ottawa, lights were off at the Parliament Building, though I admit that I did not remember the event until Sunday morning, and spent my Saturday night watching the Senators lose to the Maple Leafs (wish I had turned off my TV). Unfortunately, local officials indicate that, as the novelty of Earth Hour – started in 2007 – has begun to wear off, the event’s impact has diminished. In response, efforts have been undertaken to shift the event’s focus to promoting a general conversation about energy conservation. In support of this, and as penitence for forgetting Earth Hour, I decided to write a piece about the growing global health consequences of pollution, perhaps the most obvious and problematic result of our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyles.
The are six major pollutants that lead to the most serious health consequences associated with ambient air pollution: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (PM-10 and PM-2.5), sulphur dioxide, lead, and carbon monoxide. These pollutants can arise from thousands of sources, and can lead to a wide range of health problems, including reduced lung function, lowered resistance to respiratory infections, cancer, asthma, and aggravation of pre-existing diseases. Estimates of the overall burden vary, as direct attribution of morbidity and mortality to pollution is difficult. However, most agree that millions die each year as a result of air pollution, with millions more having their lives significantly shortened.
Globally, the problem of pollution is gaining increased attention. Even China, long thought of as one of the worst offenders with regard to pollution, given the visible smog that often hangs over Beijing, has begun to address air pollution. This has meant punishing and even closing many polluting enterprises, and shifting the emphasis away from economic growth towards sustainable development. As a result, China’s consumption of coal, a huge contributor to their smog and emission totals, fell in 2014 for the first time this millennium. The news is not all positive, however. In India, home to 13 of the top 20 cities with the most polluted air, continued population growth, and use of lorries has led to dire health consequences. Consequently, air pollution in India – both indoor and outdoor – are among the biggest cause of death.
In 2011, Canada was ranked as having the third best air quality in the world. Nevertheless, Health Canada estimates that 25% of Canadians have suffered from health problems thought to be due to air pollution. Asthma and bronchitis tend to be the most commonly reported, but evidence is emerging that air pollution may also be shortening average life expectancy. A study in Northern China found that the average lifespan was 5.5 years shorter because of air pollution. The good news, however, is that these problems are reversible. A 2013 study in the United States found that even small decreases in particulate pollutants resulted in significant increases in life expectancy.
As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals approaches, the international community awaits the release of the Sustainable Development Goals, which in many ways will dictate the health and development agenda for years to come. The seriousness of air pollution, both with respect to its health consequences and its global distribution, demand its inclusion among the most important health concerns to address. Meanwhile, with Earth Day coming up on April 22, we should all consider what behaviours we can change to reduce our energy consumption. Perhaps a day-long moratorium on cars would be an interesting place to start.
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