According to the app “sh**t! I smoke”- Yes.
We know that air pollution is a growing problem. But just how much does air quality affect our health?
According to the app's developers, air pollution makes us all smokers. Based on a study by professors at California University comparing cigarette smoking to city smog, it tells you how many cigarettes you smoke per day depending on the air quality of the city you live in. Today, for citizens of New Dehli that means 15.9 cigarettes, while at our location in Stockholm, we only smoke about 0.2 cigarettes, just a little behind London where they will smoke about 0.3 cigarettes.
Our intense exposure to air pollution earned it a place among the highest causes of death globally, right after high blood pressure, unhealthy diet, and smoking.
Air Pollution Affects Everyone
When we think about air pollution, images of school children with masks in heavily polluted cities like Beijing and New Dehli come to mind. Actually, 95% of the world’s population is breathing unsafe air according to a report by the Health Effects Institute. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the app mentioned above, there is a huge gap between the most and least polluted countries. Of the 6 million deaths linked to air pollution worldwide in 2017, China and India accounted for more than half.
In Stockholm, Folksam released a study showing that bikers and pedestrians heading to work in the city center during rush hour suffer a 3% higher risk of early death than if they had been breathing cleaner air.
Children are Especially Vulnerable
Back to the school children, studies point to rising pollution as a huge threat to children’s health, as they are still developing and more vulnerable than adults. Lung development, DNA and the ability to learn in school is affected as the ability to concentrate and react is slowed. Researchers have even found a connection between air pollution and childhood mental illness.
So What are We Doing About It?
Folksam is calling for a larger separation between bike and car lanes to combat the problem of inner-city air pollution in Stockholm, but car travelers are actually worse off than bikers. Studies show that car passengers get more exposure to air pollution than bikers and pedestrians since the bad air gets stuck in the car.
In a Guardian article, Prof Stephen Holgate, an asthma expert at Southampton University, states:
“It is nine to 12 times higher inside the car than outside,” he said. “Children are in the back of the car and often the car has the fans on, just sucking the fresh exhaust coming out of the car or lorry in front of them straight into the back of the car.”
Diesel cars, spewing out fine particles and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a big part of the problem in cities. These hazardous exhausts outweigh their slightly lower release of CO2 compared to petrol. Unfortunately, in the UK, diesel car manufacturers have been given tax breaks due to faulty and misleading data. So, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been above legal limits in almost 90% of urban areas in the UK since 2010. The toxic fumes are estimated to cause 23,500 early deaths a year. The UK government has in fact been taken to court several times because of this predicament.
In his Guardian column, George Monbiot refers to kids born after 2001 as “the diesel generation". As a result of government regulation gone wrong, an entire generation have been affected by an unhealthy level of toxins in the air.
So it seems, all urban travelers- bikers, pedestrians and drivers alike are affected, though the benefits of biking and walking far outweigh the risk of air pollution. It is time for policymakers to act, and put public health above the car industry.
Plenty of European cities are in fact taking steps in the publics' best interest. Madrid has banned all but zero-emission cars from its center, according to the plan known as Madrid Central. Paris, Athens, and Mexico City have also announced plans to take diesel cars and vans off their roads. Stockholm will be implementing environmental zones in 2020 and possibly a ban on diesel cars in 2022.
Los Angeles has seen air pollution decline by 98% over the past 50 years thanks to regulation aimed to make cars and fuels cleaner. However, heat and drought caused by climate change amplify the problem making reduction efforts difficult.
Amsterdam and Copenhagen have become the cycling capitals of Europe. Prioritizing bikes over cars and smart urban planning has made this possible.
The city of Curitiba in Brazil is a great example of investments in infrastructure and public transport paying off. 70% of the Curitibanos use the bus rapid transit system (BRT) resulting in 25% lower carbon emissions per capita than the average for Brazilian cities. Why? There are plenty of incentives nudging towards this choice- its cheaper, quicker and more effective than alternatives.
As air pollution climbs the ranks among general public health hazards, we are seeing a shift in priorities as car manufacturers are being held accountable and drivers making way for green areas, bikers and pedestrians. We see initiatives, new approaches, modern city planning, and architecture playing a part in tackling this issue. So, with systemic changes taking place across the world perhaps there is a way out of the smog after all.