Air pollution

Air pollution: An invisible killer

It’s the year 2073. You start the day by looking outside at a usual sight, black, cloudy fumes surrounding you for miles and miles on end. You prepare to run your daily errands, making sure to grab your daily essentials on the way, a haze maze that separates 99% of airborne particles from entering your respiratory system. Grabbing your keys and an extra mask, you finally step out of the house, into the environment you are now familiar with, a world impenetrable by the light of day, a gloomy, suffocating life.

As unlikely as this seems, this is the life future generations would have to live if we were to continue the rate of over-exhausting our natural resources for human satisfaction. Aeroplane exhaust fumes and factories as seen in the above pictures are 2 major reasons for air pollution in society today. Along with other strong contributors such as incineration of waste and volcanic activity, these factors contribute to the worsening air pollution on earth. In Singapore, our natural garden city ensures that our air condition is constantly stabilised and hence we are able to enjoy clean air wherever we go. However, not everyone is so lucky.

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Impacts of air pollution on living organisms

  1. Impacts on the wildlife

Due to the damaging effects of air pollution, biodiversity is at high risk. Many plants and animals have recently been wiped off. Not to mention, animals affected by pollution are less likely to procreate. Animals exposed to air pollution have a higher mortality rate. This is because air pollution can cause various health problems, including respiratory problems, heart problems, and cancer. Additionally, this type of pollution can weaken the immune system, making animals more susceptible to diseases. and bronchitis, are common in humans and animals living in areas with high levels of air pollution. In severe cases, it can lead to organ damage or even death. Animals that live in areas with heavy air pollution are at a higher risk of developing these health problems.

It is estimated that over 99.9% of all species that ever lived are extinct and everyday over 150 species of animals go extinct. Air pollution is a major contributor to the extinction of many species. Can you imagine a world without animals such as lions, zebras or elephants? That would be the world our future generations have to face if the rate of air pollution continues.

  1. Impact on plants

Air pollution injury to plants can be evident in several ways. Injury to foliage may be visible in a short time and appear as necrotic lesions (dead tissue), or it can develop slowly as a yellowing or chlorosis of the leaf. There may be a reduction in growth of various portions of a plant. 

Agricultural crops can be injured when exposed to high concentrations of various air pollutants. Injury ranges from visible markings on the foliage, to reduced growth and yield, to premature death of the plant. The development and severity of the injury depends not only on the concentration of the particular pollutant, but also on a number of other factors. These include the length of exposure to the pollutant, the plant species and its stage of development as well as the environmental factors conducive to a build-up of the pollutant and to the preconditioning of the plant, which make it either susceptible or resistant to injury.

Agriculture is the bulk of our food resources. Damage to it could result in health impacts in humans as we consume these contaminated plants. 

  1. Impact on humans

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution kills around 7 million people worldwide every year, with 9 out of 10 individuals breathing air that exceed WHO pollutant guideline limits. In particular, low- and middle-income countries are the most impacted. Based on the WHO’s 2016 urban air quality database, 98% of cities in developing countries with over 100,000 inhabitants fail to meet WHO air quality guidelines. 

The reason for this disparity is due to the difference in government actions and financial resources. Lower-income countries tend to have lax regulations regarding air quality and vehicle emissions. Coal power plants are prevalent due to industrialization. All these lack basic air pollution controls such as filters and scrubbers which decrease the amount of particulates being released into the atmosphere. In large cities, the poorest live in informal settlements most often near rubbish dumps, which are a major source of air pollution. All this contributes to the negative health and economic effects poor air quality has on a nation.

The lack of resources and access to cleaner fuels and devices not only puts lower-income individuals and households at risk, but it also undermines their economic development. The time spent on fuel collection and hearth maintenance due to lack of a reliable lighting, heating, and cooking source limits income generation, schooling, and other opportunities both during and outside of daylight hours.

In essence, air pollution affects all

From humans from developing countries to wildlife to plants, air pollution is a silent killer that is not being sufficiently addressed globally. There have been several efforts to mitigate the impacts of air pollution but none of these proposed solutions have led to any concrete change in the degradation of air quality.

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Current efforts to address air pollution

  1. A global measure: The Clean Air Initiative

The Clean Air Initiative calls on national and subnational governments to commit to achieving air quality that is safe for citizens, and to align climate change and air pollution policies by 2030. National or subnational governments can commit to achieving air quality that is safe for their citizens, and to align their climate change and air pollution policies, by 2030. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Clean Air Initiative was put on hold but the ongoing BreatheLife campaign (https://breathelife2030.org/) has continued to recruit new participants and has attracted 11 new members since September 2019 impacting almost 10 million citizens. WHO is planning to highlight those commitments at the upcoming COP26.

  1. A local measure: BreatheLife Campaign

Singapore is an island republic off the coast of Malaysia which is home to 5.6 million people. It is the first Southeast Asian city to join the “BreatheLife Campaign” initiated by the World Health Organization(WHO). Since 2019, the country has remained in the ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ range according to the NEA reports.

The Singapore government has taken necessary measures for sustainable development to reduce air pollution. It includes managing the growth of the vehicle population and switching from fuel oil to natural gas to generate electricity. Singapore is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, one of the primary sources of air pollution is industries and motor vehicles.

To help ease air pollution and ensure good air quality despite the country’s large industrial base and urban landscape, the government has introduced strict enforcement and legislation programs that help to monitor and minimise air pollution.

Since Covid-19 air quality has improved in Singapore due to the decrease in economic and transport activities. The government has announced tight control measures over automobile industries and land transportation, which remains one of the main contributors to air pollution in Singapore.

  1. Global Emissions InitiAtive

Global Emissions InitiAtive is a community effort dedicated to atmospheric emissions information exchange and competence building. GEIA’s 20th Conference will focus on advancing the scientific basis of emissions understanding needed to more effectively mitigate air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions. The Conference will bring together the latest research on emissions from all sectors and will discuss the impacts of changing emissions on air quality and climate. The conference will highlight the activities of GEIA’s Working Groups and GEIA’s collaborations with other international groups. The conference also will solicit input from the community about GEIA’s path forward by involving experts from all over the world.

This detailed planning is crucial in developing plans that are effective and executable by various governments globally. It is a first step in the right direction towards decreasing the impacts of air pollution. 

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Air pollution is an invisible killer. Toxic chemicals infiltrate our systems and deplete our standard of living. It damages crops and decreases the susceptibility of livestock. It is incremental that more initiatives are brought about to alleviate the worsening damages brought about by air pollution. 

This way, future generations can breathe the same (or better) quality of air as we have now, enjoy the current quantity of biodiversity we have access to and live to see a brighter and clearer future.