T & C: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 5: Re air/personal health, WHO cares and we should too

In “Smog more than an eyesore – it’s a wake-up call,” a Nov. 5, 2012 post on the Air Quality Matters blog, in citing a letter writer in The Fresno Bee, I wrote:

“Nancy Ellis in her May 30, 2009 ‘Make a choice to help clean our air by cycling’ Fresno Bee letter couldn’t have been clearer. Ellis wrote: ‘I am ready to change. I can no longer live in denial. It is time for me to give up my car, and become a full-time bicycle commuter. Why? Because I am sick and tired of slowly killing myself and my loved ones in a socially acceptable manner: by car exhaust.’

“Ellis wasn’t just spouting off at the mouth. She put her money where her mouth was with relevant supporting facts.

“Case in point. Ellis wrote: ‘In 1990, gasoline and diesel engine exhaust were added to the state of California’s Proposition 65 list of toxic chemicals. Car exhaust is composed of cancer-causing substances like benzene, arsenic compounds, lead compounds and formaldehyde.’

“And added: ‘According to the Coalition for Clean Air, cars and trucks and other mobile air pollution sources account for about 94% of the cancer risk in the greater Los Angeles region.’”

To know that Ellis took the kinds of steps she did really gets a person to thinking. And the letter’s overall tone suggests she wasn’t kidding. But it is the underlying message that points to a bigger problem and that is: we need to get a handle on what some have referred to as our air-pollution crisis and bring the matter under control and hence significantly lessen the associated health risk or burden on all who are exposed to and breathe in toxic air pollution on an ongoing basis and who, in one way, shape or form, are negatively affected. The problem simply cannot be ignored.

Health of cities; health of citizens

The world over, there are billions of people exposed to either high concentrations or dangerous levels of polluted air each year. Cities with populations exceeding 10 million people experience air pollution’s worst effects. (See: “Polluted air: The ‘heart’ of the problem”).

And, consider this: According to information published in a Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report published last October, pollution of one kind or another directly impacts almost one-in-six and air pollution is a contributing factor in the early deaths of an estimated six-and-a-half million people per year. (See: “2017: A doozy of a year. One for the record books. Unprecedented. Yeah, that.”).

However, those numbers tell only part of the story. Another, and the more important part to be paying closer attention to, is the percentage of people per 100,000 dying.

Looking at fine particulate matter pollution or PM 2.5 (particle pollution less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter), in “Though an intensifying global bad-air problem, not all doom and gloom, World Bank report shows,” here is some of what was expressed:

“Ambient PM 2.5 pollution was responsible for 2,928,000 global deaths in 2013, The World Bank found, which compares with 2,238,000 deaths in 1990.

“When looking at the number of deaths per 100,000 people for those same two years, in 2013, the number is 239, whereas in 1990, the number of deaths per 100,000 people is 272.

“With regard to deaths per one-hundred-thousand people, the world’s PM 2.5 pollution problem has improved somewhat, and that’s encouraging.”

Remember: This is for just one air pollution type – PM 2.5. However, if regarding air pollution in general the trend is likewise positive, then that information would be promising indeed.

What else is being said.

The World Health Organization’s “The cost of a polluted environment: 1.7 million child deaths a year, says WHO” news release is one referenced source.

The WHO writes: “… [W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

The WHO gives some specifics: 570,000 children per year under five years of age lose their lives from respiratory infections like “pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.”

Healthcare – caring (enough) about health

When you see those kinds of numbers, what’s the first thing that enters your mind?

What enters my mind is the job that is being done to significantly lower the air-pollution-exposure rate, first and foremost, isn’t near enough what it could be or, for that matter, what it ought to be, as that is where it all starts. Secondary to that is what I refer to as “damage control.”

In damage control mode, it pretty much comes down to treating symptoms as opposed to finding a cure.

Okay, so how does this relate? When someone exposed to polluted air on an ongoing basis – and not just polluted air, but that which exceeds specified standards – becomes ill from toxic air’s effects, the symptoms, excluding those that are untreatable, need treating. Think asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart attack as some examples. Had the persons suffering from such not been exposed to the toxic air responsible for leading to these conditions, then the conditions resulting from said toxic airborne pollutants being breathed in would not have happened.

But, not everyone is able to avoid being affected by living in the so-called “safe zone,” if you will.

So, what to do?

First, WHO in the release in question in speaking to the children’s health issue had this to say: “Reducing air pollution inside and outside households, improving safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene (including in health facilities where women give birth), protecting pregnant women from second-hand tobacco smoke, and building safer environments, can prevent children’s deaths and diseases.”

Meanwhile, it is a policy of mine to not go outside or drive when air in my area reaches “unhealthy-for-sensitive-individuals” status. It is on only rare occasion that I do. One, I realize that by doing this I am at increased risk, and two, if I drive, any added exhaust put into the air from my vehicle will only add to the problem already there.

I’m retired, so staying inside on days here with bad air for me is not difficult to do. For others, especially working people, doing the same may be impossible.

On the other hand, taking steps to try to reduce one’s negative-air footprint can be taken in lieu of the above-mentioned, such as driving a vehicle that produces zero emissions, otherwise known as a “zero-emissions” or “non-polluting” vehicle.

But it should (if it doesn’t) go beyond this. People should care enough about their own health and the health of those around them in terms of what, in air, people are breathing in, because if it is bad and people are getting sick and/or dying early on account of it, means there’s a definite problem.

In reading The Fresno Bee “Fighting For Air” special report, published on Dec. 16, 2007, I learned that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the estimated cost for annual healthcare tied to Valley air pollution was a whopping $3.3 billion,1 such stemming from hospitalizations, new chronic bronchitis cases, 30-years-of-age-and-older early deaths, asthma and non-fatal heart attacks, and missed work and school days. It’s been over a decade since this special report was published. I am very interested in knowing what the annual healthcare cost related to Valley air pollution is today. If anyone has this information, I hope you will share it here. It would be extremely helpful to know, in this regard, exactly what we’re confronted with. And, not just here, but in other regions so affected also.

I am curious also as to how concerned folks are living here about the Valley’s air-pollution problem. Are most unconcerned, somewhat concerned, moderately concerned or very concerned and what do residents say needs to be done to clean up Valley air?

Of course, everyone living here should be aware and everyone, dare I say, should care. So much so, that really effective action to reach air-standards compliance for both PM 2.5 and ozone in not just this area but all other regions around the world is initiated and followed through on. Though a very high expectation to have, nonetheless that kind of actionable response and commitment is certainly within humankind’s power to pull off.

And, a laudable actionable response and commitment at that!


  1. The Fresno Bee, “Fighting For Air,” Dec. 16, 2007, p. 6

To be continued.

Image above: U.S. National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

This post was last revised on Jun. 11, 2020 @ 6:42 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel

2 thoughts on “T & C: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 5: Re air/personal health, WHO cares and we should too”

  1. How can anyone in the valley not be aware of air pollution? Everyone I know suffers from a form of respiratory illness. And we can surmise what the root cause is. Good article. Keep on writing.

Comments are closed.