Air pollution and health

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Air pollution and health

The amount of air pollution has been increasing worldwidei. It has a significant impact on both the natural environment and the health of people around the worldi. In this article we look at the effects of air pollution on both a global and local scale.

Industrial processes are one of the contributors to air pollution.

Air pollution is caused by pollutants such as gases, chemicals or airborne particles like dust, ash and pollen. These can be the result of natural events like windstorms or bushfires. More commonly they are caused by human activities such as industrial processes and motor vehiclesii.

In Australia, our air quality is rated 'good' by international standardsiii, a fact that we often take for granted. However, in many other cities abroad, clean air is considered a luxury. Increasing industrial processes and motor vehicle usage are mainly responsible for the deterioration of air quality in many countries. These factors also contribute to the risk of developing respiratory and cardiopulmonary diseaseiv.

What are the consequences of polluted air?

The increase of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are a direct result of human activityii. The imbalance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere contributes to rising temperatures and changes in weather and climateii. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) predicts that the annual average temperature in Australia will rise between 0.4C to 2.0C by 2030, and 1C to 6C by 2070ii.

Poor outdoor air quality is known to increase risk of respiratory and cardiopulmonary disease in populations where the air is highly pollutedi. High levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide can impair the ability for blood to carry oxygen, and increase the likelihood of asthma attacks and other respiratory conditions such as lung cancer and heart diseaseii.

How does Australia compare to the rest of the world?

While the air quality in Australia is generally considered 'good' by international standardsiv, our air is still polluted on a daily basis when fuels such as coal, gas, petroleum and wood are used. A notable portion - approximately 75 percent - of air pollution is from motor vehicle emissionsii.

Comparison of air quality in Australian cities (Source: World Health Organization (WHO), Database: outdoor air pollution in cities)
Comparison of air quality by world cities (Source: World Health Organization (WHO), Database: outdoor air pollution in cities)

Air pollution is measured by the concentration of particles smaller than 10 micrometres (PM10)and is given in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic metre air (g/m3)v, vi. Our capital cities tend to fluctuate between 'good' or 'very good'vii, which is in stark contrast to many other international metropolises. Bearing in mind that the global urban annual average is 71PM10vii, Sydney had an average annual count of 12 PM10, Canberra 10 PM10, Perth 13 PM10, Darwin and Adelaide 14 PM10, Brisbane 18 PM10, Melbourne 13 PM10, and Hobart 12 PM10in 2009vii. Australia compares favourably well to London at 29 PM10, Paris at 38 PM10, Berlin at 26 PM10, New York City at 21 PM10, Milan at 44 PM10, Tokyo at 23 PM10 and Moscow at33 PM10vii.

World's most polluted air by city
Ranking City Country PM10
1 Ahwaz Islamic Republic of Iran 372
2 Ulaanbaatar Mongolia 279
3 Sanandaj Islamic Republic of Iran 254
4 Ludhiana India 251
5 Quetta Pakistan 251
6 Kermanshah Islamic Republic of Iran 229
7 Peshawar Pakistan 219
8 Gaborone Botswana 216
9 Yasouj Islamic Republic of Iran 215
10 Kanpur India 209
(Source: World Health Organization (WHO), Database: outdoor air pollution in cities)

The world's most polluted cities tend to be in Asia and the Middle Eastvii, with Ahwaz in Iran, ranking first with its average PM10 level at 372. In second place, Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar had 279PM10vii.

Reduce car emissions by using alternative methods of transport instead.

Although these countries may seem far away, the ramifications of polluted air in these countries are widespread. For example, nearly one third of the soot in the San Francisco Bay Area blew over from Asia via jet streamsvi.

Reduce your impact

Air pollution is a grand global problem, but luckily there are ways for you to help improve the quality of air in your area. Contributing to cleaner air on a local level can ultimately make a big difference - not only to your own individual welfare, but also to the welfare of the general environmentviii.

Choose low volatile organic compound (VOC) products when shopping for household cleaning products, cosmetic products, paints, glues, pesticides and air freshenersx.

i World Resources Institute, Rising energy use: Health effects of air pollution, viewed 19 July 2013,

ii Better Health Channel, 2013, Air Pollution, State Government of Victoria, viewed 19 July 2013,

iii Let’s clear the air, How fair is the air?, NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage, viewed 19 July 2013,

iv World Health Organization (WHO), Burden of disease associated with urban outdoor air pollution for 2008, viewed 19 July 2013,

v European Environment Agency, g/m3, viewed 19 July 2013,

vi World Health Organization (WHO), Database: outdoor air pollution in cities, viewed 19 July 2013,

vii World Health Organization (WHO), Exposure to particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of 10μm or less (PM10) in 1100 urban areas, 2003-2010, viewed 19 July 2013,

viii Let’s clear the air, Air and you, NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage, viewed 19 July 2013,

ix Better Health Channel, 2013, Smog, State Government of Victoria, viewed 19 July 2013,

x Let’s clear the air, Air quality at home, NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage, viewed 19 July 2013,