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Air pollution

Air pollution – definition, causes, and more

Air pollution – definition, causes, and more

Air pollution refers to the release of any substance that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere in both indoor and outdoor environments. It is one of the biggest health challenges Humanity faces today.

Air pollution

According to the latest air data World Health Organization (WHO), only 1% of people breathe air that is suited for their health – the other 99% live in areas where air quality standards are not met. WHO data shows that, per year, deaths attributed to air pollution mount to seven million. As a reference, from its beginning until late 2022, the covid-19 pandemic was responsible for 6.5 million deaths.

World Bank Group estimates that the health costs of mortality and morbidity caused by PM 2.5 air pollution mount to over 8 trillion dollars, i.e., the equivalent to 6.1% of the global Gross Domestic Product.

5 main causes of air pollution

Air pollution is caused by suspended particles in the air. These particles can come from either natural sources – e.g., volcanic eruptions, dust winds, wildfires, and biological decay – or from human activity.

As one would expect, man-made sources are the biggest contributors to air pollution. The following is a list of the biggest man-made contributors to air pollution:

  • Combustion from fossil fuels
  • Farming chemicals
  • Household products
  • Emissions from industrial plants 
  • Manufacturing activities

Smog and Particle Matter 2.5

One of the most visible consequences of air pollution is smog. The name comes from the early 1900s to describe a mixture of smoke and fog that was a result of intensive coal burning. 

However, today what we experience is photochemical smog, i.e., a substance produced when sunlight reacts with nitrogen dioxide and at least one volatile organic compound (VOC). 

Studies have shown that smog is most commonly caused by large concentrations of fine particulate matter that are two and a half microns or less in width. Such particles are also known as particle matter 2.5 (PM2.5).

Such particles have a great impact on human health. Due to their small size, they can pass through the filtration of nose hair and reach the lungs where they accumulate and damage other parts of the body through air exchange in the lungs. 

Examples of sources of nitrogen oxides: combustion engine vehicles, and industrial processes.

Examples of sources of volatile organic compounds: cleaning solvents, paint, and gasoline.

Air Pollution causes
Image by Jacek Dylag

The importance of air quality monitoring

Air monitoring is the process of measurement, operation, and predictive analysis of air pollution in a given area.  Monitoring systems read the different air pollutants, temperatures, and humidity. 

Monitoring is the first step to solving air pollution issues. However, the most prevalent mechanisms to monitor air are too scattered. As a consequence, organizations that work under such circumstances are not able to precisely pinpoint the pollution hotspots.

To approach and solve air pollution successfully in a given area, decision-makers must have a dense network of sensors spread across it. 

Air quality sensors

Air quality devices are used to monitor the presence of dangerous air pollutants and toxic gases. 

There are numerous devices in the market that are able to track the key pollution markers in both outdoor and indoor environments. Typical devices record standard meteorological conditions (temperature and humidity), particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), and VOC.

Indoor air pollution monitoring devices are especially important in the houses of people that have respiratory problems or lung disease.

PlanetWatch has several types of sensors for indoor and outdoor air pollution monitoring. Find more about our compliant sensors.

Levels of air pollution and global warming

Changes in climate can also result in impacts on your local air.

Air pollution, including numerous harmful substances such as carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to global warming. 

In its turn, higher temperatures often lead to a more prevalent presence of harmful air pollutants as well as allergens. Note that longer periods of heat can also mean longer pollen seasons.

As a consequence, thorough monitoring of air status also means decision-makers can pinpoint and act on the problems that are contributing to global warming. Governments are able to more accurately create policies to reduce air pollution. On the other hand, companies can keep their users/clients out of dangerous outdoor pollution.

Air Pollution Global Warming
Image by Patrick Perkins

Air pollution and environmental problems

Air pollution is also responsible for damaging and contaminating soil.

Ground-level ozone, for instance, leads to reductions in agricultural crops and the growth of forests. It is a major factor responsible for decreasing young trees’ and other plants’ survivability due to the higher susceptibility to disease and pests.

Moreover, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide particles in the air can also create acid rain when mixed with water and oxygen present in the atmosphere. 

Acid rain is responsible for removing vital minerals and nutrients (e.g. magnesium and calcium) from the soil. These are crucial for the growth of trees and plants. 

Water pollution resulting from bad air quality

All pollutants, even the ones present in the air, eventually make their way to the water. The effects of air pollution also pose environmental health risks

As is the case with acid rain, when we pollute our air, we are also polluting the precipitation that falls into the soil and water bodies. All forms of life present in the water are harmed by air pollutants.   

It is important to note that although a lake, river, or ocean may seem clean at first glance, it can be polluted due to acid rain, polluted snow, and particulate matter.

Health effects of breathing poor air

Exposure to air pollution contributes to breathing system infections, heart disease, and lung cancer. The rise of pollution in the air is a major public health problem.

Short and long-term exposure to air pollutants has been associated with health risks. Aggravated diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis, chronic pulmonary disease, and asthma can arise more often in areas where the air is not suitable.

The impacts are more severe on people who are already ill. People from poor communities, children, and the elderly are more susceptible to higher levels of air pollution.

Air pollution also contributes to reducing the resistance to infections. Meaning it is responsible for fostering much more than diseases of the respiratory tract.

Prevention – reducing your footprint

There are several actions you can take to reduce air pollution.

Be as mindful as possible about the usage of resources that contribute to poor air. Energy conservation is also extremely important since many countries still rely heavily on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity (in 2019, 63.3% of global electricity came from fossil fuels). Avoid burning wood, trash, leaves, or any other material.

As individuals, we must stand up for our right to healthy and sustainable environments and hold governments, public institutions, and companies accountable. If you want to take action, you can also educate people around you to be warier regarding their day-to-day actions that can improve air quality.

The solution for air pollution

In order to fight air pollution levels efficiently, it’s crucial to collect accurate, real-time, and hyperlocal data to thoroughly inform on the main pollution hotspots and drive targeted change

This can only be achieved with a very dense air quality monitoring network. PlanetWatch uses blockchain technology to incentivize citizens to deploy their own air monitoring devices. This community-driven approach has made it possible to deploy more than 70.000 sensors across cities in Europe and the United States in just two years.

The data collected by the several thousand devices of PlanetWatch’s network are sent to a ledger. The information can then be accessed by public organizations and companies through an API. Entities from several sectors can use the data for numerous applications. Read some of PlanetWatch’s ongoing projects.

If you want to join our growing community of people that look after the air they breathe, learn how to become a PlanetWatcher.

In case you would like to use the air quality data, learn more about PlanetWatch’s API.