UN News – “Breathe at Your Own Risk: Unmasking the Dangers of Air Pollution”

Written and presented by Liona Metushi

In this UN News, the first aim is to raise awareness about the presence and impact of unhealthy air. From the exhaust fumes of vehicles to industrial emissions, these invisible adversaries infiltrate our air, impacting both human health and the environment. That is why we should be educated about the sources of air pollution, which are the main air pollutants, analyzing the health impacts of poor air quality in urban areas, environmental consequences and what is the perspective for combating air pollution. This article will inform on the vulnerability of certain populations to this issue and hopefully encourage personal responsibility in each of us therefore inspiring a collective action to a future where air is a source of vitality rather than a majorly neglected hazard.

Air Quality Index (AQI)

Air pollution is measured by the Air Quality index, reporting on pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act. The AQI informs the public about air quality and associated health effects. AQI values below 100 are satisfactory, while values above 100 indicate unhealthy air quality, especially at levels above 150. The AQI is divided into six categories that correspond to different levels of health concern which are:

  • Good: Air quality is good and poses little or no risk.
  • Moderate: Air quality is acceptable; however, there may be some health concern for a small number of unusually sensitive people.
  • Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups: When air quality is in this range, people who are in sensitive groups, may experience health effects when engaged in outdoor activities.
  • Unhealthy: When air quality is in this range, everyone who is active outdoors may experience effects. Members of sensitive groups are likely to experience more serious effects.
  • Very Unhealthy: When air quality is in this range, it is expected that there will be widespread effects among the general population and more serious effects in members of sensitive groups.
  • Hazardous: Air quality in this range triggers health warnings of emergency conditions by media outlets.

Main Air Pollutants – “The Antagonists”

  • Particulate matter (PM10 and PM5) are considered extremely small solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air, that mainly comes from motor vehicles, wood burning heaters and industry. Long-term exposure leads to effects such as reduced lung function, development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, increased rate of disease progression and reduction in life expectancy.
  • Ozone (O3) in ground level is the main component of smog and is the product of the interaction between sunlight and emissions from sources such as motor vehicles and industry. It can cause irritation and inflammation, reduce lung function and increase the risk for respiratory infections.
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is formed by emissions from motor vehicles, industry, gas-heaters and gas stove tops. It is a respiratory irritant leading to increased possibility of lung infections, causing more frequent asthma attacks and airway inflammation in healthy people.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and weakness.
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2) irritates the lining of the nose, throat and lungs and may worsen existing respiratory illness, especially asthma. It also worsens cardiovascular diseases.

Vulnerable Groups – “Snowflakes”

Certain groups are potentially more vulnerable than others to indoor air pollution. These include children, pregnant women, people over 65 years of age, and persons suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Other factors that may render some people more vulnerable are genetic traits, lifestyle, nutrition, for some it’s the pollutants, for others might be existing health problems.

  • Children are more vulnerable to air pollution due to their short height and faster breathing. They may be exposed to up to 1/3 more air pollution than adults while walking on busy roads. Air pollution can increase the risk of pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death for children under five worldwide. In 2016, 8% of deaths attributable to air pollution were children under five, compared with 1% for children aged five to fifteen.
  • Pregnant women living in areas with an above normal air pollution conditions, suffer from harmful effects of air pollution that have proved detrimental for both maternal health and fetal development. In 2021, over 1.3 million pregnancies occurred in areas where particle pollution earned at least one F grade. Of those, nearly 198,000 of these pregnancies took place in counties that failed all three measures of air quality assessment.
  • Elderly people may be particularly vulnerable to air pollution because the ability to eliminate chemicals from the body decreases with age. However, they may also be less sensitive to some effects such as irritation of the eyes and nose.
  • People of color (POC) are threatened by unhealthy air quality in the areas they reside. As per the latest statistics, 64 million POC individuals reside in counties that have been marked with at least one failing grade for ozone and/or particle pollution. Over 13 million POC individuals are living in counties that have received failing grades on all three measures.
  • People experiencing poverty, 6 million individuals who fall under the federal poverty definition, reside in counties that have received a failing grade for at least one type of pollutant. This is an alarming statistic that highlights the significant impact pollution has on those living in impoverished conditions. Almost 2.6 million people living in poverty are situated in counties that have failed all three measures of pollution.

Situation in Albania

We would like to think the situation in our small country is maybe better than that in the advanced industrialized countries, but that is far from the truth. The level of air pollution through the measurement of the level of PM 2.5 particles and their conversion into the amount of cigarettes consumed, shows that Albania is part of the areas with high pollution, which if converted accounts for 7 cigarettes.

The level of air pollution in Tirana is above the norm set by the European Union.

The sector that plays the most important role in air pollution is transport, followed by construction activity. According to the study, in the city of Tirana, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was twice the standard value of the European Union, in areas such as “Rruga e Durrësit” and  “Rruga e Kavajës”, even though along these streets there is greenery on both sides. In these areas, a value of 771 (ppm) was recorded, out of (350 ppm) which is the standard of the European Union. Carbon monoxide (CO) has been within the norms, while the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has been high in the main intersections of the city.

Strategies to reduce air pollution

  • Individuals can reduce contributions to air pollution by prioritizing walking, biking and public transit over diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles. Conserving electricity and purchasing the power from clean, non-combustion sources if possible. Leaves or trash shouldn’t be burnt and wood as well whenever possible. One of the best ways to reduce pollution is to switch from vehicles and appliances that burn fuel, like gasoline-powered cars and natural gas stoves and furnaces to zero-emission versions that run on electricity.
  • Local governments can support zero-emission city and county operations, transportation, and electricity to benefit communities affected by poor air quality. They can adopt a climate action plan, reduce emissions by promoting walking, biking, transit and zero-emission vehicles, and address health impacts of climate change. Municipalities can receive planning grant funding to reduce pollution. Purchase zero-emission fleet vehicles including garbage trucks, recycling trucks, transit buses, and school buses. They can set goals for buying clean electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, or tidal power to fuel city and county operations.
  • State Government set a clean or renewable electricity standard or clean peak standard that phases out the use of coal, oil, natural gas (also known as methane) and other combustion and replaces it with wind, solar, geothermal and tidal and other non-combustion forms of electricity. It shouldn’t allow the increased use of biomass or municipal solid waste for electricity because of their contributions to particle pollution. State should invest in air quality monitoring to capture pollution levels that disproportionately impact communities near polluting sources in order to address them. They should use Clean Air Act authority to adopt the standards for light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.