Air pollution: the biggest threat you’ve never seen

Published

Credit: Iona Murfitt

Alexandra Luca
Writer

Imagine waking up on the morning of your December exam, confident you’ve done your best this term – you didn’t even need to resort to cramming the night before – and the clear sky outside is certainly a good omen. As the day goes on, though, your head feels a bit fuzzy. You just feel off, and end up blanking on questions you were sure you had smashed through just the day before. Your friend pulls out her phone, opens an app she says measures the air quality in real time – an area on the map glows red, smack dab in the heart of Glasgow. As excuses go, most would think this a poor man’s “the dog ate my homework”, but thinking the air we breathe affects our academic performance is neither a bad joke nor another pitch for a mediocre dystopian film. As social media attention and protests build around environmental issues like the climate crisis, some revolutionary spirit must be directed at its insidious cousin: air pollution.

According to the WHO, nine out of 10 people breathe in polluted air and this is not restricted to urban areas, as weather patterns carry polluted air and vapour into rural areas. Although during industrialisation smoke from coal used in homes or factories released the most pollutants, the main culprit of modern times is traffic – car engines spew CO (carbon monoxide), volatile compounds, and particulate matter (PM10) into the air and therefore our lungs. Most studies focus on the effects of PM10 or its smaller version PM2.5, fine particulate matter which is 3% the diameter of an average human hair.

Studies have linked poor air quality with increased risk of dementia, asthma, premature birth, and more, causing over 8 million deaths per year worldwide, including a third of all deaths from strokes, lung cancer, and heart disease. It is hard for people to care about what they can’t see and humans are notoriously hard at discounting long-term risk, but if something impairs your cognitive abilities right now in real time, you may take notice. Roth, Ebenstein, and Lavy show that PM2.5 affects performance in exams and standardised tests – even temporary exposure on the day of the exam led to 3.2% decline in test scores. Further down the line, the students in the study, conducted in Israel, were shown to have lower chances of attending university and a 2.1% decline in monthly earnings as adults due to exposure to 10 additional units of PM2.5 during their matriculation exams, when compared to unaffected counterparts.

Other studies seem to confirm the link between air pollution and poorer academic results but that is not all. A study by Columbia’s Neidell and his team shows higher pollution decreases worker output, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars lost due to lower productivity. Perhaps framing the issue as an economic and human capital loss due to lower scholastic achievement and worker performance will make politicians and corporations take notice, but progress feels more elusive with every inhale of diesel fumes we breathe, as cars deemed long ago to be nothing short of noxious gas machines continue to chug along.

Some countries have begun to take notice. In China, where, according to a 10-year study, one third of the country experiences PM10 levels above 70 μg/m3 (WHO acceptable levels are below 20 μg/m3), progress has since been made by cutting particulate pollution by a third. Norway is set to introduce diesel bans and taxes, with most new cars purchased being electric or hybrid. Cities like Paris and Athens have diesel bans in the works, whilst some cities like Rome ban vehicles in selected areas, like city centres, to limit noxious air concentration. London is tackling the issue through its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), making people with older, more polluting cars pay to drive in central London – a similar plan (LEZ) in Glasgow aims to do the same and it meets a dire need, as the most polluted street in Scotland is Glasgow’s own Hope Street, with an average of 60 μg/m3 for particulate pollution.

Clean air campaigners tout such measures as all well and good but advocate complete diesel bans, whilst understandably frustrated car owners bemoan being punished by governments who promoted these cars in the first place. The issue remains controversial due to such competing interests and the political climate can worsen tensions: Trump’s attempts to prevent California from setting stricter vehicle emission standards is seen as shameless political retribution. All this serves to accomplish is to distract from the real-life detriment to people’s health and prospects.

On a personal level, companies like Airhead – co-founded by Alex, Elliot and Harry – are looking to inspire a conscientious community of what they like to call “Airheads”: “people committed to protecting themselves and their loved ones from pollution”. Their company’s air pollution mask, currently in development with a team from Brunel University, will aim to help “anyone that lives, breathes, travels in urban environments” as they go about their day-to-day. Their mask will “protect against particulate pollution, bacteria and dangerous gases” whilst also being stylish and comfortable. Measures like this seem a necessity for the future; other top tips would be to download air quality apps or check real-time air monitoring websites and install air filters in homes – the more aware we become of air quality levels in our area, the more informed pressure can be applied on local council governments. A 2001-2011 study checking in with individuals exposed in utero to the infamous London smog of December 1952 showed that children of the mothers exposed were 3% less likely to have A-level qualifications. Although 3% could seem negligible, real lives and futures are affected by denial and inaction – could we be the generation to end the pattern and ensure that, in a world already littered with hurdles, it is at least safe to take a breath?