Air pollution has been linked with many detrimental health effects, and we’ve long known that we need to clean up our act if quality of life is going to be maintained.
Cleaning up air pollution, of course, has been a long and difficult road, oftentimes mistaken for an expensive and economically detrimental path by the short-sighted. For example, the combination of basin-type geography, heat from the sun, and millions of cars, planes, and ships in the Los Angeles, California, area often led to smog, with devastating effects on human health. Basin areas, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, weren’t the only places to suffer, but even cities, such as New York, where up to 260 may have died due to the effects of smog in 1953.
By cutting emissions, such as increasing automobile fuel economy and cleaning up or eliminating coal power plants, among other measures, smog alerts, and their public health effects, have become less common in many areas. The problem isn’t solved however, and quick economic expansion, unimpeded by environmental regulations, has led to air pollution on a grand scale in different parts of the earth, and along with it, adverse health effects and even death.
Where is this going on? Not surprisingly, we’ve heard of hundreds of premature deaths of babies and elderly people in Hong Kong, China, as well as growing cities in India, Singapore, and other countries. It may not be surprising that these problems are occurring in developing lands, but what really surprises me is that even developed lands, such as the United States and European Union, are still worse off than in the 19th Century. For example, Los Angeles still suffers from excessive air pollution, in spite of technological advances and regulatory actions.
A new map released by NASA’s [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Earth Observatory, combined data regarding premature deaths due to air pollution and where they are occurring, and the results are worrisome. The air pollution NASA specifically targeted and mapped as of the PM2.5 type, that is, Particulate Matter less than 2.5µm, micro-meters, so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope. This type of air pollution is generated by combustion of all types, including internal combustion engines, fossil fuel power plants, residential wood burning for heat and cooking, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes.
The more brown the area on the map, the further from air pollution levels of 1850 the world has gotten. White areas are unchanged since 1850, and blue areas have become cleaner since then. We’ve still got plenty of work to do.
Image © NASA