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Air Pollution, Climate Change and Human Health

The Tragedy of the Commons

Clean air is a shared natural resource on earth. Therefore, any change in air quality at point A almost invariably affects that quality at point B. This also means that an action affecting air quality by an independent rational individual in their own self-interest can sabotage the clean air supply to another innocent party. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garett Hardin is an economic theory, which states that in such a scenario the shared natural resource depletes. Unfortunately, all parties, both innocent and guilty, suffer the consequences (Hardin 3). Clean and fresh air is a resource that can be exhausted, and all living organisms would be affected. Furthermore, it also has impacts on other aspects of our troposphere. This paper discusses air pollution. Herein, I will explain how air pollution causes changes in weather, climate, and human health.

Air pollution refers to the contamination of the atmosphere with components that are not supposed to be there. These include particulate matter, green-house gases, and persistent free radicals among others. The principal greenhouse gas is CO2 which is released due to burning fossil fuels and forests (Rani et al. 6). Other greenhouse gases are methane mainly derived from agricultural and livestock production, nitrous oxides, and halocarbons. Air pollution is a result of human activity; as such, it has a huge impact on weather, climate, and health of man (Dai et al. 1).

The two major pollutants of interest are smog from heavy trucks and coal. In the United States and many other countries, smog causes a very dangerous weather condition that results in reduced visibility and, therefore, poses serious threats to drivers. Dr. SverreVedal, a Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington gives a reason for the reduced visibility. He states that in areas with coal-powered power plants, there are emissions of Sulfur dioxide (SO2). It is then oxidized to sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and further to sulfate (SO4). SO4 particles scatter light reducing visibility more so in Eastern and midwest US. However, with the introduction of the Clean Air Act, visibility and air quality in these areas have improved significantly. Dr. Sverre says that “there have been some major successes, most notably the sulfur control policies, largely aimed at coal-fired power plants, initially for the purpose of combating acid rain”. He is a pulmonary (lung) physician as well as an epidemiologist knowledgeable about health effects of air pollution. Similar to smog pollution, in countries like China where coal is used to produce energy for industries, it has also resulted in reduced visibility (Schipani 3).

Consequently, another major impact of coal is the increase in the rates of global warming (Rani et al. 4). This is because during the processes of coal combustion, carbon dioxide gas is produced which traps heat from the Sun thus causing global warming. Carbon dioxide ranks the highest among factors contributing to global warming. Warming is a result of carbon particles which are released when coal is burnt. The carbon particle is black; thus, it absorbs solar radiation warming the environment. This is in contrast to the particles such as sulfate which scatter the solar radiation, therefore having a cooling effect. Dr. Sarah Doherty is a Senior Research Scientist at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at the University of Washington. She says that “Particulate matter (“aerosols”) typically cause climate to cool. This is because most particles in the air have a color somewhere between white and light brown or gray, so they scatter much more sunlight back to space than they absorb”. However, today the emission of warming particles is higher than that of cooling hence the overall effect of warmer temperatures. Due to the increased global temperatures, frozen ice in the Arctic and Antarctic Circle have continued to melt, which has led to the rising water level and changed weather or rain patterns. Additionally, the increased global temperatures caused severe weather patterns which when projected have a very strong potential of resulting in drought, hunger, and other natural calamities (Dai et al. 1).

No Wonder It Is Too Hot Nowadays

Additionally, poor air quality also has major impacts on the weather and climate. Weather in this case refers to the condition of the atmosphere in short periods of time while climate is the condition over a long period of time. The change in climate is triggered by the increased emission of greenhouse gases. The major gases are CO2 and methane, which trap energy thus magnifying the natural ‘greenhouse effect’. As a result, the global temperatures rise, and by the 20th century the world surface temperature had increased by 0.6˚C. About 66.7% of that warming has been experienced from 1975. It is predicted that these changes will lead to the precipitation and variability in climate. Furthermore, there are those societies that have already had experiences with extreme regional climatic cycles. These were the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Mayans during the four centuries of the Little Ice age. In addition, there have been calamities and outbreaks associated with extremes like the El Niño Southern Oscillation. As of today, the Pacific Northwest houses most of North America’s forests, thus there is less emission of carbon dioxide in the air compared to places like China. This is because the green vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide thus reducing the effects of the environmental pollution acting as a carbon sink. However, with the increased global temperatures, there is an increase in the incidence of forest fires. This is according to Lara Whitely Binder, an outreach and adaptation support specialist at the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group (CIG). She affirms that the higher temperatures make soil moisture dry out fast. This incidence is even higher in summer when the temperatures are higher (Dai et al. 7). “The frequency of fires is more a function of ignition sources, e.g. lightening, humans,” said Lara.

UltraViolet Radiation is Lethal

Finally, air pollution also has an adverse effect on the health of humans. The greenhouse gases have a detrimental effect on the ozone layer. This layer is the “sunscreen” of the Earth that protects livings things from ultraviolet radiation. It is vital to life as it absorbs the harmful rays of the Sun. However, emissions of substances such as chlorofluorocarbons and methyl bromide into the air have continued to deplete the ozone layer (McMichael et al. 4).

As a result, it increases health conditions such as skin cancer, sun burns, and photodermatoses. It also predisposes to eye ailments like cancer of the cornea, macular degeneration, photokeratitis, and photoconjunctivitis. UV radiation also suppresses the immunity and may lead to the activation of latent viral infections. Ultraviolet radiation impairs the molecular chemistry of photosynthesis of both terrestrial and sea plants. This could affect world food production at least marginally and thus contribute to nutritional and health problems in food-insecure populations. UV radiation has also been suspected to cause the impairment of the molecular chemistry of photosynthesis of both terrestrial and sea plants. This could have catastrophic effects as it would decrease world food security leading to nutritional problems. Information on how this happens is still not well known (Pope III 15). However, not all effects of UV are detrimental. First, it makes the skin produce vitamin D therefore preventing rickets and osteoporosis. There are also records indicating that it decreases the chances of getting breast cancer, type 1 diabetes as well as prostate cancer (McMichael et al. 6).

There is Hope After All!

The increasing air pollution has pushed researchers to carry out research on how to improve air quality. Their focus is on the reduction of pollution as well as emission of pollutants to the atmosphere (Pope III 20). Again, the researchers will encourage individuals to take part in environment protection by being responsible and reduce emission of pollutants into the air.

Ozone Air Quality from the Year 1990-2014 of Salinas in USA

In Seattle, the primary air pollutant is smoke from the long-distance trucks as they transport goods from the Seattle port to the interior. As the trucks move around, they tend to emit carbon and other gases to the environment thereby exposing people to polluted air. However, the moving air and vegetation along the roads minimize the air pollution. The vegetation traps dust and emitted carbon thereby reducing their effects on humans. Although the Seattle government spent over 1.5 billion to try and reduce pollution from these trucks, this has not sufficiently reduced the pollutants. Seattle depends on the moving air and natural resources to reduce pollution to the residential area. Therefore, traffic remains a challenge and pollutant to the ozone layer.

The Real Time Air Quality index of Beijing

In Beijing, pollution is also high. The primary source of Beijing pollution is the coal-burning industries and vehicles emission. As Beijing commits to producing coal in the world, the level of pollution increases. The coal pollution amounts to 16 percent while the direct and indirect vehicle emissions are about 22 percent. The other sources of pollution are the industrial emissions, urban fugitive, and rural straw burning (Pope III, 12). Emissions from these areas have negatively affected the quality of air particularly for people living near the industries. As a result, there are health problems, especially respiratory diseases. Beijing may take quite some time before it improves the quality of air (Seski et al 10). Moreover, since vehicles are the leading pollutants, it may pose a challenge to prevent emissions from them.

In conclusion, the challenge of ensuring high air quality is huge. This is because air pollution affects global temperatures causing a rise in them. This, in turn, results in changes in weather patterns and extreme occurrences such as El Nino. There have also been disease outbreaks such as malaria being experienced in areas where they previously have not been seen. There is also the challenge of reduced visibility as a result of air pollution by particulate matter. Additionally, with the destruction of the ozone layer, several health problems such as skin and eye cancer are now rampant. Therefore, we need to stop air pollution as its consequences are felt by everyone, thus causing the tragedy of the commons. Mostly, air pollution is the result of human activity and can therefore be controlled. The technology and information on how to do this is available; thus, the only part left is implementing. Air pollution can be stopped.