Modern living has provided us with a wealth of conveniences. Never has it been easier to maintain a household, access information, or travel from place to place.  Unfortunately, those conveniences come at a cost. Air quality across the globe has suffered drastically from the continued burning of fossil fuels.

But, how much of an effect does air quality actually have on our health and economy? An innovative project called The Cost of Air Pollution Counter decided to find out.

What is the “Cost of Air Pollution Counter”?

The Cost of Air Pollution Counter was created through a collaboration between IQAir AirVisual and Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Using data published in 2019, the report gives a global assessment of both the health and economic costs of burning fossil fuels. The study focused on nitrogen dioxide (NO2),  ozone (O3), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), all of which are proven to be detrimental to human health.

What exactly are nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter, and why are they so dangerous?

  • Nitrogen Oxides (NO and NO2) are created from the molecular nitrogen in the air and burning fossil fuels. Nitrogen Oxides are a part of acid rain, particulate matter, and smog. The health risks of exposure to nitrogen oxides include heart disease, exasperated symptoms of asthma, and an array of other respiratory illnesses.
  • Ozone is found in the Earth’s stratosphere and gives us protection from ultraviolet radiation from the sun. But, ozone is also formed near ground level when nitrogen oxides react with volatile organic compounds (found in everyday household items). Ground-level ozone pollution can cause chest pain, throat irritation, inflammation of the airways, and severe respiratory illnesses.
  • Particulate matter is a term used to describe microscopic particles in the atmosphere. Particulate matter can be made up of a variety of different chemical combinations and comes in a range of sizes, all of which are extremely hazardous to humans.  The tiniest particles are called ultrafine and are small enough to reach the gas exchange region of the lungs.

What were the results of the Cost of Air Pollution Counter?

  • Air pollution generated by burning fossil fuels is attributed to approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year. 40,00 of those deaths are children under 5.
  • Air pollution from fossil fuels costs us an estimated 1.8 billion lost working days worldwide per year.
  • Combining health costs and work absences, 3.3% of global gross domestic product (8 billion dollars) is lost every day.

Is there any that can be done?

Yes! There are a number of tactics proven to reduce air pollution already in progress, and many more plans being developed. The two most impactful changes are:

Switching to sustainable transportation: Many cities have already undertaken initiatives to improve air quality such as promoting pedestrian and cycle-friendly spaces and providing public transportation fueled by renewable energy sources. More than 15 countries have announced plans to phase out cars powered by fossil fuels, sending a strong signal to markets that change is needed.

Generating electricity from renewable energy sources: Up to 65% of air pollution-related global deaths are linked to fossil fuel emissions. There is already precedent in the US for lowering emissions.  Between 2007 and 2015, regulations and plant closures in the United States drove down emissions drastically. A return to regulations, along with transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar would save millions of lives every year.

Until the global situation improves, individuals must take precautions to protect their own health. Living outside of densely populated urban areas is, of course, the best way to reduce your exposure to pollutants, but that’s just not an option for many people.

If you live in an urban area, especially one with high levels of pollutants, check your air quality before going out. The morning is often the best time to be outside because ozone levels are lower. If you can, walk away from traffic and near trees or shoreline, where there are typically less pollutants.

To keep your indoor air clean no matter where you live, ensure that gas stoves are well ventilated, reduce the use of harsh cleaners and scented products, and, for air truly free of pollutants, consider purchasing a high quality air purifier.