The rising consequences of particulate pollution


Pollution is on the forefront of many people’s minds as worries over environmental health increase and spring haze is upon us. Warmer weather can often serve as a catalyst for dangerous chemical reactions and for pollutants to be released into the atmosphere. Certain kinds of pollution are especially dangerous for human and animal health.

What is particle pollution?

Particle pollution refers to a subset of airborne pollution that’s due to particulate matter (PM) suspended in the air. PM differs in size and severity, and is generally a mixture of solid and liquid. While some PM can be seen by the naked eye — think dust, soot or smoke — the most dangerous particles are also the smallest. The danger of PM depends largely on the size of the particles and can be separated into 3 general categories.

Particles larger than 10 micrometers (µm) in diameter are of the least worry for long-lasting human health concerns, but can still irritate sensitive tissue around the eyes, nose and throat. Anything smaller than 10 µm can pose great threat to internal organs because they are too small to be expelled by our body’s defenses against foreign invaders, like sneezing, watering eyes, coughing or blinking.

asbestos fibers
Asbestos Fibers

There are two further broad distinctions in particle size: coarse particles, which range from 2.5 µm to 10 µm, and fine particles, which are anything smaller than 2.5 µm. Fine particles can be further classified into ultrafine and nanoparticles, which are smaller than 0.1 µm.

Why particle pollution is a problem

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 7 million people die annually as a result of polluted or substandard air quality. Pollution isn’t always the obvious cause, but it compounds existing conditions and can be the underlying cause of common killers like stroke and heart disease.

According to the WHO, 2.4 million heart disease and 1.4 million stroke related deaths per year are caused by air pollution. These numbers are only expected to increase, as the organization has also reported that 91% of people worldwide are exposed to air that does not meet the WHO’s healthy guidelines.

Particle pollution isn’t exclusive to man-made materials, as dust storms, forest fires, and pollen can also be dangerous for airways. However, shifting weather patterns due to climate change may be worsening air quality by creating natural disasters that compromise air standards. In the UK, the Department of the Environment measures outdoor air pollution on a 1 to 10 scale. Often the scale hits 10 (the worst) due to intercontinental winds that whip up dust from the Sahara Desert and distribute them as far north as Great Britain and as far west as the Caribbean Islands.

The BBC reported that these winds serve as the “tipping point” for poor air quality when coupled with emissions from road transport and residential causes. The UK is a repeat offender on substandard air quality and has been taken to the European Court of Justice three times over failure to curb air pollution.

Now, scientists are worried that the damage is so far gone that even efforts to fix these issues could have unfortunate repercussions. Professor David Stevenson at the University of Edinburgh has found that “cutting pollution could disrupt the formation of clouds which reflect heat from the sun back into space.”

“Air pollution and climate change are inextricably linked and we need to develop smart pollution control policies that take these links into account,” Stevenson went on to say in an interview with the BBC.

Common causes of air pollution

Threatening air pollution can occur both indoors and outdoors, splitting the WHO’s grand total of 7 million deaths per year into 4.2 million as a result of ambient air pollution, and 3.8 million due to indoor air pollutants.

Alarmingly, indoor pollutants may come from things we think of as unavoidable. Sources of light and cooking are among the worst offenders, as are the very materials homes may be built with. The WHO estimates that 3 billion people use polluting fuels like wood, coal, dung, and kerosene to cook their food, light their rooms and warm their homes. In developing nations especially, these are often the only ways to power homes at all.

Combustion isn’t the only cause of indoor pollution. A common concern like mold can have severe impacts on joint pain and respiratory health when allowed to get out of control. Additionally, older homes and buildings are prone to having particulate pollutants like asbestos and lead in foundational construction materials.

Outdoor pollutants are not purely limited to natural sources like dust and sand. The results of man-made industrial output are just as dangerous. Ground-level ozone is another danger to worry about, and the recipe for this toxic substance includes ingredients both man-made and natural.

Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), are both emitted by vehicles, power plants, industrial factories, chemical plants, and other man-made sources. When NOx and VOCs mix together in the air they chemically react when exposed to heat and sunlight, creating a toxic cocktail of smog known as ground-level ozone, which can have profound effects on human health.

Health effects of particle pollution

The most obvious portion of the body affected by PM is the lungs. When these fine particles are inhaled, they irritate the lungs and the body is not able to expel them safely. The WHO reported that 43% of all lung disease and lung cancer deaths can be attributed to air pollution as an underlying cause. Many of the pollutants mentioned above contribute to this disheartening statistic.

picture of lungs with asbestos cancer
Asbestos Cancer

Construction material toxins like lead and asbestos may lead to rare conditions like lead poisoning, asbestosis and mesothelioma, the latter two of which affect the lungs and have high mortality rates. Ozone pollution leads to death less often, but consistent exposure weakens the lungs, making them more susceptible to other infections or diseases.

The brain itself is also at risk from PM; 24% of stroke deaths annually are caused by air quality concerns. Now, research shows that the polluted atmosphere may be having an effect on general cognitive abilities. A study conducted by UK researchers at the University of London, King’s College London and Imperial College found that incidence of dementia increases 40% in areas of high pollution.

This frightening statistic has very little explanation, as the study authors wrote: “While toxicants from air pollution have several plausible pathways to reach the brain, how and when they may influence neurodegeneration remains speculative.”

Internal organs aren’t the only systems affected by PM. Studies have also found that polluted air can have negative effects on fetuses in utero. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found amounts of soot particles in the placenta, suggesting that PM is able to pass into the umbilical cord. Dr. Tobias Welte, vice president of the European Respiratory Society, commented on the results of the study to Live Science.

“Air pollution is no longer a respiratory problem, it’s a systemic problem,” Welte said. “Our hearts, brains, kidneys and lymph nodes could be virtually full of these particles. The exposure of unborn children to these particles is particularly worrying as it can affect the development of their organs.”

Particle pollution on the rise

The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report found that air quality levels in the nation are getting lower and more citizens are being exposed to polluted air. The report also underlined that climate change is a large contributing factor.

“Rising temperatures lead to more ozone formation and conditions that result in more frequent and intense wildfires,” read the report, “putting millions more people at risk and challenging efforts to clean up air pollution.”

The report also urged lawmakers and citizens to take action to protect air quality and American health, especially given that 43% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy ozone and PM levels. However, new regulations meant to promote industry may be doing so at the expense of air quality and health.

Regulatory rollbacks, budget slashing to the EPA and relaxed regulations on toxic materials are all to blame. The current administration plans to decrease the EPA’s budget by a third and has been rolling back previous regulations on ambient air standards.

One such new regulation is the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) that moves farther away from a full ban on asbestos. In June of 2018, the EPA proposed the new rule, which allows asbestos-containing products no longer being manufactured to be reviewed and allowed back into production after 90 days.

While the rule itself doesn’t explicitly allow asbestos back into production, it does represent the loosening rather than the tightening of regulations. Many of the comments received during the rule’s comment window lobbied for a full ban on the mineral instead of complicated new regulations.

How can changes be made?

With the future of regulations to curb emissions murky, individual action is more important than ever to mitigate particulate pollution. These actions can be twofold: both ways to reduce actual emissions and ways to avoid high levels of pollution to elevate your own health. These steps are especially helpful during the summer, when heat levels rise.

To prevent and avoid ozone, stay indoors during hot days and avoid using any combustion-powered machines. This includes cars, lawn mowers, boats, and motorcycles. Releasing these chemicals into the hot air will result in toxic fumes. Similarly, campfires and heat powered by burning matter will release smoke particles into the air, regardless of the ambient temperature.

Common sense measures like reusing resources, reducing energy usage and water consumption, consolidating car trips and switching to energy efficient products can have quite an impact. Making the switch to clearly labeled products that are free of harmful chemicals will also help.

Educating oneself about the specifics of climate change and pollution is essential to living intentionally. As the studies above mentioned, these two factors are interrelated, and citizens can take action to inform policies by commenting on proposals and voting for candidates who align with these goals.

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