During a pandemic that causes deadly respiratory challenges, nine out of 10 people worldwide are breathing polluted air. This Clean Air Month, get facts about air pollution’s impact on our health and the Earth.
1. Air pollution kills more than 7 million people every year.
Not only that, but one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease are directly linked to air pollution. Cigarettes have roughly the same impact, but air pollution is starting to cause more deaths every year.
2. More than 90% of the world’s children breathe toxic air every day.
That means 1.8 billion children are breathing dirty air right now. In 2016, an estimated 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air. The brain grows faster during the first 1,000 days than at any other time in a person’s life—and toxic chemicals can slow this development. Yet, nearly 17 million babies live in areas where outdoor air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits.
Source: World Health Organization + UNICEF
3. Dirty air wreaks havoc on our bodies.
Burning fossil fuels doesn’t just trap greenhouse gasses at Earth’s surface. The chemicals released also linger in the air we breathe. And these chemicals seriously impact our health. For decades, researchers have been adding to the laundry list of health issues linked to air pollution: low birth weight, miscarriages, lung disease, cognitive impairment, heart disease, asthma, and stroke are a few.
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists + World Health Organization
4. More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
You may have heard of outsourced jobs, but what about outsourced pollution? Studies are finding that high-income countries like the United States, Japan, and many Western European nations may have outsourced more than half of their carbon dioxide emissions since many of the goods they consume are produced outside their borders. The countries that end up with the polluted air are often located in the Global South.
Source: Stanford + IQAir
5. Four in 10 Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution.
The United States is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and 135 million people in the country are breathing toxic air. People of color and working-class communities are more likely to live in areas affected by outdoor air pollution, toxic waste, and indoor air pollution. For example, one study found that an increase in air ozone levels in the surroundings is associated with pulmonary changes in African American children with persistent asthma. An inhaler doesn’t always protect those children from respiratory effects.
Source: The Guardian + ScienceDirect + EPA
6. Thousands of tons of microplastics are floating around the world.
Most people are exposed to air pollution in some way, and airborne microplastics are a common one. These tiny particles of plastic float around the world and settle into the ground. They’re absorbed into our food and water or linger around us. We might be inhaling up to 16.2 bits of plastic from our clothes and plastic containers every hour, according to one study. That’s like swallowing a credit card every week!
Source: Scientific American + Nature
7. About 350 coal-fired power plants were under construction as of 2020.
Burning coal releases several types of greenhouse gasses that contribute to a warming globe and dirty air. In La Paz, Mexico, the team at the International Community Foundation said the city is already feeling the consequences of its power plants. On 200 days in 2019, the particles of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceeded the maximum amount recommended by Mexico and the World Health Organization. Local communities are pushing back, but plans to build more thermoelectricity plants are moving forward.
Source: Mexico News Daily + Canadian Energy Center
8. Air pollution is depleting the Earth’s lungs.
Tropical rainforests are often called the “lungs of the planet” because they trap carbon dioxide and release oxygen. As we chop down rainforests—a process that emits huge amounts of CO2—we’re also making it more difficult for the planet to clean up after our dirty energy practices. It’s estimated that 8.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by deforestation and other disturbances every year.
Source: World Resources Institute
9. Air pollution and acid rain disrupt ecosystems’ function and growth.
Yes, acid rain is still a thing! Despite the near elimination of acid rain in Europe and North America, it’s a problem in India and much of Asia. The team at the nonprofit Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra knows this well. When chemical companies and coal power projects crowded western India’s lush Konkan coastline, the region’s delicate ecological balance was thrown out of whack. According to Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, it caused the forest cover of the Ratnagiri district in Konkan to decrease by more than 16%.
Source: UNICEF + The New York Times
Pollution’s impact on the natural ecosystems is bad news for local animals, too.
“Once ubiquitous, marine turtle nesting sites have reduced to just 20 villages in this region. Birds like black woodpeckers and great pied hornbill, which were widely sighted in the past, have seen their numbers dwindle drastically,” the Sahyadri Nisarga team wrote on their GlobalGiving project page.
10. Disasters can make dirty air even dirtier.
Declining air quality is already leading to premature deaths, and disasters like California wildfires make the situation worse. An analysis from EPA data found that air pollution was associated with 9,700 additional premature deaths of adults over age 30 in the U.S. and about 18,000 years of life lost among the elderly from 2016 to 2018. The same report attributed 1,400 of the premature deaths in California to pollution from the 2018 Camp Fire—a stark reminder that pollution and the climate crisis go hand in hand.
11. You can make a difference this Clean Air Month.
These facts about air pollution are concerning. But you can take action against what many describe as the “largest environmental threat to human health” this Clean Air Month by donating to nonprofit organizations using community-based approaches to reduce air pollution. Join their efforts by setting up a monthly donation today, and your gift will be matched at 100%.*
Support vetted, community-led nonprofits fighting air pollution.
*Terms and Conditions apply.
Featured Photo: Lights On! Empower Kamarata with the Sun by Eposak Foundation, INC