The World Health Organization reports that 3 million people now die eachyear from the effects of air pollution. This is three times the 1 millionwho die each year in automobile accidents. A study published in The Lancetin 2000 concluded that air pollution in France, Austria, and Switzerland isresponsible for more than 40,000 deaths annually in those three countries.About half of these deaths can be traced to air pollution from vehicleemissions.
In the United States, traffic fatalities total just over 40,000 per year,while air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually. U.S. air pollution deathsare equal to deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Thisscourge of cities in industrial and developing countries alike threatens thehealth of billions of people.
Governments go to great lengths to reduce traffic accidents by fining thosewho drive at dangerous speeds, arresting those who drive under the influenceof alcohol, and even sometimes revoking drivers' licenses. But they pay muchless attention to the deaths people cause by simply driving the cars. Whiledeaths from heart disease and respiratory illness from breathing pollutedair may lack the drama of deaths from an automobile crash, with flashinglights and sirens, they are no less real.
Air pollutants include carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogenoxides, and particulates. These pollutants come primarily from thecombustion of fossil fuels, principally coal-fired power plants andgasoline-powered automobiles. Nitrogen oxides can lead to the formation ofground-level ozone. Particulates are emitted from a variety of sources,primarily diesel engines. "Smog"--a hybrid word used to describe the mixtureof smoke and fog that blankets some cities--is primarily composed of ozoneand particulates.
The air in most urban areas typically contains a mixture of pollutants, eachof which may increase a person's vulnerability to the effects of the others.Exposure to carbon monoxide slows reflexes and causes drowsiness, sincecarbon monoxide molecules bind to hemoglobin, reducing the amount of oxygenthat red blood cells can carry. Nitrogen dioxide can aggravate asthma andreduce lung function, as well as making airways more sensitive to allergens.Ozone also causes lung inflammation and reduces lung function and exercisecapacity.
Smaller particulates, especially those 10 micrometers in diameter (1/2,400of an inch) or smaller, can become lodged in the alveolar sacs of the lungs.They are associated with higher admissions to hospital for respiratoryproblems and with increased mortality, particularly from respiratory andcardiovascular diseases. As particulate concentrations in the air rise, sodo death rates.
When people inhale particulates and ozone at concentrations commonly foundin urban areas, their arteries become more constricted, thus reducing bloodflow and oxygen supply to the heart. This is why air pollution aggravatesheart conditions and asthma.
Unlike some pollutants that have threshold levels below which no healtheffects are seen, ozone and particulates have negative health effects evenat very low levels. Thus no "safe" level of such pollutants exists. Researchpublished in Science in 2001 noted that in industrial as well as developingcountries, exposures to current levels of ozone and particulates "affectdeath rates, hospitalizations and medical visits, complications of asthmaand bronchitis, days of work lost, restricted-activity days, and a varietyof measures of lung damage."
While these affect health care systems, they also take a toll on theeconomy. The increased monetary expenses related to air pollution inducedillness include the costs of medication, absences from work, and child careexpenses. In the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, which has apopulation of 11.9 million, air pollution costs citizens at least $1 billionannually in hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and workerabsenteeism. According to the World Bank, the social costs of exposure toairborne dust and lead in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila approached 10 percentof average incomes in the early 1990s. In China, which has some of theworld's worst urban air pollution, the illnesses and deaths of urbanresidents due to air pollution are estimated to cost 5 percent of the grossdomestic product.
The economic costs of air pollution argue for reducing income taxes andraising taxes on fossil fuels. This would encourage more efficient fuel use,a shift to clean energy sources, and the adoption of pollution controls. Thealternative is to spend more on health insurance to treat airpollution-related ailments. Raising the costs of polluting fuels will reducesuffering and premature death.
In response to traffic congestion and their notorious air pollutionproblems, Mexico City and São Paulo restrict people from driving on certaindays of the week, based on the last digit on their license plates. AndBogotá, Colombia, has put in place a series of measures to reduce airpollution from transportation; in the process, it has become a more livablecity. Since 1995, the city has reduced traffic during rush hours by 40percent and increased the gasoline tax. Some 120 kilometers (75 miles) ofmain arteries are closed for seven hours each Sunday, which allows thestreets to be used for walking, bicycling, and jogging.
The solutions to urban air pollution are not difficult to discern.Individuals can reduce car usage in favor of cycling, walking, and masstransit and can use more fuel-efficient cars. Urban planning commissions andregional governments can redirect transportation funding toward mass transitoptions: light rail, heavy rail, or rapid bus transit.
Zoning laws and other regulatory tools can be used to encourage the higherdensity development that is conducive to mass transit. And countries canshift electricity generation from coal and natural gas toward wind and solarpower, using the lever of government subsidies and tax incentives for cleanenergy, rather than continuing to subsidize fossil fuels.
When purchasing a new car, consumers typically consider price, extrafeatures, safety, and sometimes fuel economy. The fact that air pollutionfatalities substantially exceed traffic fatalities worldwide suggests theneed to broadly redefine notions of safety to include the goal of decreasingair pollution. While only some motorists contribute to traffic fatalities,all motorists contribute to air pollution fatalities.
Written by: Bernie Fischlowitz -Roberts, Earth Policy Institute
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