Summer’s wildfires left many in North America gasping for air. Yet the problem of air pollution stretches to all corners of Earth.
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Thick, smoky air from Canadian wildfires has made for days and weeks of misery in New York City and across the U.S. Northeast this summer. The surreal, orange-tinted air in photos taken in New York at the time brought to mind apocalyptic scenes from movies.
In early July, New York and Washington had the second and third worst air quality respectively of any major cities around the globe, according to IQAir.com, which tracks global air pollution.
While this effect was not as severe in other places, people in a number of states noticed degraded air quality and at times a visibly hazy appearance to the sky. This made spending time outdoors a challenge, especially for the very young, the elderly and those with asthma or other conditions. But the saga was little more than an inconvenience for most Americans. It was not difficult to remain indoors, close to the comforting mechanical hum of the air conditioner, employing various additional gadgets for air purification to make it through.
Many may not realize that, for much of the world, breathing dangerously polluted air is an inescapable fact of life and death.
Almost the entire world breathes air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s air quality limits at least occasionally. The danger grows worse when that bad air is more persistent than the nightmarish shroud that hit the U.S.—usually in developing or newly industrialized nations. That is where most of the 4.2 million deaths blamed on outdoor air pollution occurred in 2019, the United Nations health agency reported.
“Air pollution has no boundaries, and it is high time everyone comes together to fight it,” said Bhavreen Kandhari, the co-founder of Warrior Moms in India, a network of mothers pushing for clean air and climate action in a nation with some of the world’s consistently worst air. “What we are seeing in the U.S. should shake us all.”
“This is a severe air pollution episode in the U.S.,” said Jeremy Sarnat, a professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “But it’s fairly typical for what millions and millions of people experience in other parts of the world.”
Analyzing the Problem
Last year, nine of the 10 cities with the highest annual average of fine particulate matter were in Asia—including six in India, according to IQAir.
Fine particulate matter, sometimes denoted as PM 2.5, refers to airborne particles or droplets of 2.5 microns or less. That is far smaller than human hair, and the particles can reach deep into the lungs to cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation and even affect heart function.
Sajjad Haider, a 31-year-old shopkeeper in Lahore, Pakistan, rides his motorbike to work daily. He wears a mask and goggles to protect against frequent air pollution in the city of 11 million but suffers from eye infections, breathing problems and chest congestion that worsen as smog grows in winter.
On his doctor’s advice, he relies on hot water and steam to clear his chest but said he cannot follow another bit of the doctor’s advice: Do not go out on his motorbike if he wants to keep his health.
“I can’t afford a car and I can’t continue my business without a motorbike,” said Mr. Haider.
Last year, Lahore had the world’s highest average concentration of fine particulate matter at nearly 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. By comparison, New York City’s concentration hit 303 at one point during the summer.
But New York’s air typically falls well within healthy levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for exposure is no more than 35 micrograms per day, and no more than 12 micrograms a day for longer-term exposure. New York’s annual average was 10 or below the past two years.
New Delhi, a heaving city of more than 20 million where Ms. Kandhari lives, usually tops the list of the many Indian cities gasping for breath as haze turns the capital’s sky gray and obscures buildings and monuments. It is worse in autumn, when the burning of crop residues in neighboring states coincides with cooler temperatures that trap deadly smoke over the city, sometimes for weeks.
Vehicle emissions and fireworks set off during the Hindu Diwali festival add to the murk, and the results include coughs, headaches, flight delays and highway pileups. The government sometimes asks residents to work from home or carpool, some schools go online and families that can afford them turn to air purifiers.
Even as a hazardous haze disrupted life for millions across the U.S., New Delhi still ranked as the second-most polluted city in the world, according to daily data from most air quality monitoring organizations.
Ms. Kandhari, whose daughter had to give up outdoor sports over health scares related to the bad air, said the air pollution is constant but policymakers only seem to notice its most acute moments. That has to change, she said.
“We should not compromise when it comes to access to cleaner air,” Ms. Kandhari stated.
Many African countries in the Sahara Desert regularly grapple with bad air due to sandstorms. While the U.S. was reeling from wildfire smoke, AccuWeather gave nations ranging from Egypt to Senegal a rating of purple for dangerous air quality. It was the same rating given to New York and Washington, D.C.
Senegal has suffered unsafe air for years. It is especially bad in Senegal’s east as desertification—the encroachment of the Sahara onto drylands—carries particles into the region, said Dr. Aliou Ba, a senior Greenpeace Africa campaigner based in the capital of Dakar.
The Great Green Wall, a massive tree-planting effort aimed at slowing desertification, has been underway for years. But Dr. Ba said pollution has been worsening as the number of cars on the road, burning low-quality fuel, increases.
In the U.S., the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act cleared up many smog-filled cities by setting limits on most sources of air pollution. The landmark regulation led to curbs on soot, smog, mercury and other toxic chemicals.
But many developing and newly industrialized nations have weak or little-enforced environmental laws. They suffer increased air pollution for other reasons, too, including a reliance on coal, lower vehicle emissions standards and the burning of solid fuels for cooking and heating.
In Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, it is often difficult to find clear blue sky, with power plants and vehicle emissions accounting for much of the pollution. It is also one of the world’s largest coal-producing nations.
In one apartment building in the north of the city, between two busy ports where coal is shipped and stockpiled and where factories burn more, residents tried filtering coal dust with a net. It did not work.
“My family and I often feel itching and coughing,” Cecep Supriyadi, a 48-year-old resident, said. “So, when there is a lot of dust entering the flat, yes, we must be isolated at home. Because when we are outside the house, it feels like a sore throat, sore eyes, and itchy skin.”
An Indonesian court in 2021 ruled that leaders had neglected citizens’ rights to clean air and ordered them to improve it.
China has improved since Beijing was notorious for eye-watering pollution that wreathed office towers in haze, diverted flights and sent the old and young to hospitals to be put on respirators. When the air was at its worst, schools that could afford it installed inflatable covers over sports fields with airlock-style revolving doors and home air filters became as ubiquitous as rice cookers.
Key to the improvement was closing or moving heavy industries out of Beijing and nearby areas. Older vehicles were taken off the road, many replaced with electric vehicles. China still is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, but almost none is consumed at street level. The average PM 2.5 reading in Beijing in 2013 of 89.5—well above the WHO’s standard of 10—fell to 58 in 2017 and now sits at around 30. China had just one city—Hotan—in the world’s top 10 for worst air.
Mexico City, ringed by mountains that trap bad air, was one of the most polluted cities in the world until the 1990s, when the government began limiting the number of cars on the streets. Pollution levels dropped, but the city’s 9 million people—22 million including suburbs—rarely see a day when air pollution levels are considered “acceptable.”
Each year, air pollution is responsible for nearly 9,000 deaths in Mexico City, according to the National Institute of Public Health. It is usually worse in the dry winter and early spring months, when farmers burn their fields to prepare for planting.
Mexican authorities have not released a full-year air quality report since 2020. But that year—not considered particularly bad for pollution, because the pandemic reduced traffic—Mexico City saw unacceptable air quality on 262 days, or 72 percent of the year.
In the summer months, heavy rains clean the city’s air somewhat. That is what brought Veronica Tobar and her two children out in early June to a small playground in the Acueducto neighborhood near one of the city’s most congested avenues.
“We don’t come when we see that the pollution is very strong,” Ms. Tobar said. Those days “you feel it in your eyes, you cry, they’re itchy,” she said.
Her son was diagnosed with asthma last year and temperature changes make it worse.
“But we have to get out, we can’t be locked up,” Ms. Tobar said as her children jumped off a slide.
Whether caused by wildfires, industrial facilities, motor vehicles or other factors, air pollution is a massive problem for much of the world, and it is unclear how it could ever be addressed.
An article in Time magazine stated: “About 99.82% of the global land area is exposed to levels of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5)—tiny particles in the air that scientists have linked to lung cancer and heart disease—above the safety limit recommended by the Word Health Organization, according to the peer-reviewed study published…in Lancet Planetary Health. And only 0.001% of the world’s population breathes in air that is considered acceptable, the paper says.
“Conducted by scientists in Australia and China, the study found that on the global level, more than 70% of days in 2019 had daily PM2.5 concentrations exceeding 15 micrograms of gaseous pollutant per cubic meter—the WHO recommended daily limit.”
Even with this data, it is difficult to fully grasp the depth and extent of the conundrum of air pollution. To learn the reason society has not been able to fix this and other problems, read our free booklet Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.