Clean Air for the World

Breathing clean air can’t be taken for granted. In many parts of the world, people breathe polluted air. Our health is at stake if, for example, particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide enters our lungs. A need for action exists in many places.

Air quality varies widely around the world. Photo: Shutterstock - Danila Shtantsov

Air quality varies widely around the world. Photo: Shutterstock – Danila Shtantsov

The figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) speak for themselves: more than 90 percent of the world’s population breathes contaminated air, and every year more than seven million people die prematurely as a result of air pollution. By way of comparison, approximately 1.35 million people worldwide die each year as a result of road traffic accidents. Air polluted with dust is so dangerous because the very fine particles, which also consist of a mixture of different pollutants, penetrate deep into the lungs and from there into the bloodstream. They cause respiratory infections, including pneumonia, chronic lung diseases, lung cancer, heart disease, or strokes. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone are particularly insidious.

According to WHO, the highest levels of air pollution are found in the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, where annual averages often exceed five times the WHO limits, followed by low- and middle-income cities in Africa and the western Pacific. Air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries – particularly in Europe, the Americas, and the Western Pacific. Major drivers of man-made air pollution are the energy sector, industrial production processes, road transport, and agriculture, with varying degrees depending on the region.

Around 400,000 premature deaths can be attributed to particulate matter

The fact that there’s still a lot to be done, especially in Europe, is demonstrated by figures from the EEA, according to which around 400,000 premature deaths are estimated to be attributable to particulate matter alone. If the “Report on the outlook for air pollution in the European Union”, published by the EU Commission in January 2021, is anything to go by, this figure could at least fall to 194,000 deaths by 2030, provided the member states implement all measures under EU legislation.

To better understand the challenges of improving air quality at a local level, the EEA launched a pilot project back in 2012 with a number of European cities – including Antwerp, Berlin, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Prague, and Vienna. As measures for better air, the participating cities have, for example, expanded district heating, promoted cycling, lowered the speed limit, and introduced toll systems. Other successful initiatives include relocating industrial plants, upgrading small combustion plants and boilers, using cleaner fuels for heating, switching to climate-friendly buses and streetcars, and introducing low-emission traffic zones. In addition, the EEA and the European Commission have developed the European Air Quality Index, an online tool that uses hourly updated data from more than 2,000 monitoring stations across Europe to check the current air quality at a particular home, workplace, or travel destination.

Clean air is a fundamental basis of life

When it comes to improving air quality, Jürgen Bachmann, Head of the Emission/Immission Measuring Unit in the Industry, Construction, and Real Estate Division at DEKRA Automobil GmbH in Stuttgart, brings another important aspect into play: “Whatever measure is taken wherever: quite decisively, it’s important not only to monitor the concentration of substances in the ambient air, but also to consistently avoid or minimize possible pollutants at the source, and to back this up with appropriate measurements.” Because where nothing bad is emitted, nothing bad can develop. Bachmann knows what he’s talking about; after all, emission measurements can undoubtedly indicate malfunctions or defects that may not even have been noticed yet. “Even a small crack in a fabric filter can have serious consequences,” the emissions expert points out. Whatever the nature of the damage, it must be repaired as quickly as possible, both in the interest of the respective company, whose basis is compliance with the values approved for operation, as well as in the interest of the people, for whom clean air is a fundamental basis of life.

Number of deaths from air pollution in 2019. Graphic: Health Effects Institute (Boston, MA), State of Global Air

Number of deaths from air pollution in 2019. Graphic: Health Effects Institute (Boston, MA), State of Global Air

The ten countries with the best air quality worldwide

  1. Finland
  2. Australia
  3. Sweden
  4. Iceland
  5. Norway
  6. New Zealand
  7. Canada
  8. Ireland
  9. Switzerland
  10. France

The ten countries with the worst air quality worldwide

  1. Pakistan
  2. India
  3. Nepal
  4. Uzbekistan
  5. Tajikistan
  6. Lesotho
  7. Cameroon
  8. Mongolia
  9. Sudan
  10. Afghanistan

Source: Environmental Performance Index (Yale University, Columbia University)

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