Nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air, and more than seven million people die every year from it.
It’s an unimaginable statistic for those living in northern Queensland, where clear blue skies and fresh sea air are the norm. Yet you don’t have to go too far north to find the most heavily polluted continent in the world - Asia. More than four million people die every year in the Asia-Pacific region alone from diseases directly related to air pollution, and it’s a number that continues to grow.
World Environment Day is celebrated annually on June 5, and this year’s theme is air pollution, with official celebrations being hosted by China. The United Nations hopes to raise awareness of this global issue and educate people on the steps they can take to prevent it.
The five big contributors to air pollution are households, industries, transport, agriculture and waste. JCU researcher Doctor Zsuzsa Banhalmi-Zakar has completed significant work in Environmental Impact Assessment, of which air quality is a key aspect. Growing up in Europe, she saw first-hand the effects of air pollution.
“Smog is a huge problem in Europe. It’s a combination of smoke and other air pollutants, all trapped closer to the ground, so people can breathe it in. It’s much more visible pollution – it settles on your car, all around you. The particles are quite damaging to your lungs,” she said.
Cars are also a major contributor to pollution, as they produce significant amounts of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. A recent increase of car-use in Asia has added a huge pressure on the environment.
“Millions of people who have never used cars are suddenly all in cars, and it’s made a big difference,” said Zsuzsa. “It’s very difficult to manage and prevent.”
Once a pollutant is released into the air, it’s almost impossible to control, and once breathed in, the tiny particles of toxic chemicals can attack your lungs, heart and brain. Even if there are no immediate effects, the long-term impact of breathing in pollution can be devastating, particularly for those who are sensitive or have respiratory problems like asthma.
“Research indicates that if you live in a city where air quality is very poor, the effects on your lungs are similar to the effects of smoking,” said Zsuzsa.
Air pollution also impacts on mortality. A 2015 TED talk-style documentary by Chai Jing called Under the Dome highlighted how pollution in China is affecting the health of infants before they’re even born, because their mothers are breathing in polluted air. Although the documentary was later censored by the Chinese government, it helped educate the public on the causes and effects of smog and other air pollution.
“Imagine living a life where you can’t send your kids outside some days, because it’s too dangerous. It’s hard to understand, considering we live in Australia, but that’s the reality for some people living in very polluted cities,” said Zsuzsa.
Even though Australia’s air quality is better than some countries, we still emit significant amounts of pollution, particularly in larger cities. So, what can be done to improve?
Zsusza emphasises that people first need to understand the damaging effects of air pollution, and then choose to make change.
“People need to realise that air pollution hurts, and it’s bad for your health. The best thing we can do is get out of our cars. But if only one person gets out of their car, they’ll be breathing in the dirty air that everyone else is emitting. It needs to be a community effort.”
She urges the community to collectively advocate for more green spaces in the city and better public transport.
“We have the capability right now to design a really good public transport system. A lot of cities have already introduced completely free public transport for residents, which also increases the liveability of the city or the inner city.”
Other ways to reduce air pollution include being mindful of turning off lights and electronics not in use, choosing energy-efficient appliances, and walking or cycling to work where possible.
#WorldEnvironmentDay is an opportunity for everyone to do something to take care of our Earth. Find out how you can participate or take the Mask Challenge.
If you’re interested in studying environmental science and management like Zsuzsa, check out JCU’s undergraduate and postgraduate degree options.