Have you ever gazed out at your local city or town only to see its buildings blanketed by a thick layer of smog? ‘Smog’ is a word that is made by combining the words ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’ and is often used to describe the layer of air pollution visible to the human eye. Visible air pollution, however, makes up only a small portion of the total air pollution present in our modern world.

A 2008 Blacksmith Institute Report listed air pollution, and poor urban air quality, as two of the world’s worst toxic pollution problems. With air pollution, there is more than meets the eye; microscopic particles can be too small for an eye to see but it is precisely because of their small size that they affect humans. Air pollution can enter through the nose and mouth virtually undetected making it one of the most dangerous forms of pollution.

Pollution is often distinguished based on its origins. Some air pollution occurs naturally as the result of biological processes or volcanic explosions, while other types of air pollution occur as a result of human development. Instances of air pollution caused by humans include the emissions that come from factories, cars and cigarette smoke. These human-produced sources of air pollution are sometimes called anthropogenic sources. Most of this air pollution consists of microscopic particles that cannot be seen but can result in adverse health effects.

Some major air pollutants include Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur Oxides, Nitrogen Oxides and Carbon Monoxides. These pollutants enter the human body through inhalation and can result in numerous ill-effects linked closely to the respiratory system such as irritation, coughing, bronchitis, wheezing and asthma. Long-term exposure to harmful air pollution can even lead to conditions such as lung cancer and respiratory diseases like emphysema.

A recent article by the Guardian newspaper, published this March, cites research placing the number of premature deaths resulting from air pollution at around 8.8 million. Of these, almost a third of the premature deaths occurred in the Western Pacific region, which is also home to one-quarter of the world’s population.  India and China are two nations with particularly high levels of air pollution, and as a consequence a higher percentage of premature deaths resulting from asthma. The same article noted that air pollution now causes more deaths per year than tobacco smoking.

Babies and young children are particularly at risk of air pollution as a result of their respiratory systems not yet being fully mature. Furthermore, the health issues that these air pollutants create puts further pressure on public and private health systems leading to ever-increasing financial burdens. This affects all humans and nations in an indirect and delayed economic manner. The situation has become so serious that in 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) held its first Global conference on Air pollution and Health in Geneva. This is part of a larger commitment in its part to raise awareness about the continued danger that air pollution is beginning to pose to humans.

WHO makes the following suggestions as to ways to limit your personal intake of air pollution. It suggests that you limit the amount of traffic air you are breathing in, either by not walking on busy streets during rush hour or spending less time at traffic hotspots. The organisation also recommends exercising in less polluted areas, and not burning waste because the smoke poses a dangerous health risk.

Sadly, air pollution and its effect on humans may become something that we all need to get used to in the future.