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HomeBlogBlue sky thinking about the air we breathe

Blue sky thinking about the air we breathe

By: Medix Team
Blue sky thinking about the air we breathe

Will COVID-19 change attitudes about a much bigger killer, air pollution?

It’s that time of year again in South East Asia when the onset of the dry season means that land clearing fires in Indonesia start blanketing the surrounding region with haze. The smog provides an annual and all too visible reminder of what air pollution looks like.


By contrast, citizens across other parts of Asia have been marvelling at the first blue skies they’ve seen in years. Improving air quality has been one of the only plus points of the COVID-19 pandemic. When people stay home, the air clears up.


The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 90% of the world’s population breathe air that breaches its maximum safe annual threshold of 10ug/m3. That’s actually a reduction on the 94.2% figure it recorded back in 2010. But the benefits haven’t been evenly spread across the world.


Nearly all of the reduction has been in the US and Europe where there have been concerted efforts to meet climate change targets by de-commissioning coal-fired power stations and improving vehicle emissions standards. However in Asia, coal consumption is still rising and many more people are buying cars, as the region gets richer.


In late July, the University of Chicago updated its global Air Quality Life Index. It says that South Asia has the worst air pollution of all. If it doesn’t improve, New Delhi residents will reduce their lifespan by eight years.


South East Asia also fares badly. It ranks Singapore as the world’s fourth most polluted country. But its citizens could gain an additional 3.4 years of life if the city state is able to meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines.


The Indonesian capital, Jakarta could do even better. Its citizens would gain 4.8 more years!


The fact is that most of us are well aware that toxic air isn’t good for our health. So why don’t we do more about it?


It’s possible that in the world’s most polluted cities, people just became progressively more accustomed to declining air quality until COVID skies showed them otherwise.  


In other cities where the skies seemed clearer, air pollution might have been too intangible to grasp. Yet whereas smoking looks and feels like a killer, air pollution is far more dangerous according to the University of Chicago.


The smaller the particulate matter (PM) the greater the danger. One called PM2.5 is so small that it’s only one 60th of a human hair.


When we breathe it in, it doesn’t just fill our lungs but also enters the bloodstream too. From there, it causes inflammation that radiates throughout the body triggering all manner of health problems.


The WHO says that air pollution causes one third of deaths from strokes, heart attacks and lung cancer. It wreaks short- and long-term damage to children and adults alike.


Children are affected by a host of issues ranging from asthma and cancer to neurodevelopment disorders like autism. Pregnant women living in highly polluted areas also put their foetuses at risk.


Then there’s COVID-19 itself. Studies suggest that people living in polluted areas are not only more likely to get the virus, but to die from it as well. One study concludes that particulate matter helps the virus to spread through the air. A Harvard University study also estimates that a 1ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 leads to a 15% increase in COVID mortality for long-term residents in polluted areas.


It is possible that we may reap some positive benefits from the way the virus is focusing minds on health and lockdowns on air quality. Governments across Europe and the US are rushing to install bicycle lanes with the aim of reducing obesity (more exercise) and improving air quality (fewer cars).


Milan, for example, is installing 35 kilometres (KM) of bike lanes, while Seattle is introducing 32km. In late July, the British government also announced a £2 billion investment in cycling.


Even in highly polluted cities, the health benefits of exercising outdoors outweigh the negative impact according to a University of Cambridge study. It says that someone would need to cycle for more than five hours a week in a city like New Delhi before the risks of breathing in polluted air more quickly from exercise would start to negate the benefits of getting fitter.


What other steps can we take to protect our health and society at large? Buying an air purifier is one way. Purchasing a more environmentally friendly car is another for when walking or cycling isn’t an option. Eating more cruciferous vegetables like broccoli also helps to stimulate detox enzymes that reduce inflammatory C-reactive protein (CRP) levels.


The WHO suggests that parents lift their children above vehicle exhaust levels when standing at busy road junctions so they breathe in less toxic air. It calls air pollution the greatest environmental risk to health of our time.


Air pollution doesn’t respect borders or wealth. Let’s hope that COVID-19 skies show governments and individuals alike that we’ve all been given an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about it. So let’s all get on bikes, eat healthier and drive awareness!


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