Air pollution

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the name used for tiny particles and gases in the air - which we often cannot see or smell - that can cause damage to our health when we breathe them in. The particles - sometimes called aerosols - include gases like nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide; and particulate matter (PM), made up of solid and liquid particles such as soot and dust.

Today, air pollution is the world’s biggest health crisis; the silent pandemic. Nearly all the world’s children are breathing filthy air that exceeds the WHO safe limits. Children are especially vulnerable because they tend to spend more time outside and are more active than adults. Children breathe faster than adults too, which means young children breathe in 2-3 times the amount of polluted air as their parents.

Toxic particles from air pollution can also pass through the lungs of pregnant women and accumulate in the placenta, raising the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and permanently stunted lungs. Air pollution impacts children under 5 during the most crucial phase of their development when their lungs, neuro-development, cognitive abilities and immune system are forming.

The main causes of the air pollution our children breathe are:

  • burning fossil fuels (in coal- or gas-fired power plants which provide electricity; in the engines of cars, buses, trucks, ships and aeroplanes, or in the boilers we use to heat our homes).
  • burning crop-residue or forests, either in managed or wildfires.

Fossil fuels are killing our children:

Air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, whether in coal- and gas-fired power plants for electricity, in the combustion engines of cars, trucks and ships, or in the oil- and gas-fired boilers that heat our homes, is killing our children. This toxic air causes chronic, debilitating disease, and robs children of their futures. One in five early deaths occur because we have to breathe air polluted by fossil fuels.

Burning fossil fuels is also the most significant contributor to climate change. The burning of fossil fuels for energy is the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for a whopping 73% worldwide. Within the energy sector, generation of heat and electricity is responsible for most emissions.

Climate change is already getting worse, resulting in serious physical and mental health impacts. Heatwaves, droughts, floods and locust swarms, for example, are all intensifying around the world because of climate change, hurting people’s lives and livelihoods.

Now we we know the damage they cause, it’s time to bid fossil fuels farewell. The alternatives - such as wind and solar power for electricity and electric vehicles for transport, which do not pollute our air - are becoming more affordable and easier to access for many.

Crop-burning and wildfires:

  • Open burning in the agricultural sector causes enormous health impacts in rural and urban communities around the world, especially among children. It is done for a variety of reasons — removing crop residue before plowing, clearing weeds and pests and “renewing” pastures — but the practice causes far more damage than good; and not just to human health.
  • The smoke from burning can travel enormous distances, especially the smallest particles: PM2.5 and the even smaller (<PM1) black carbon are so small that they can pass from the lungs into the bloodstream causing heart disease and cancer. In addition, black carbon absorbs heat, adding to climate change. When black carbon lands on snow and ice, it causes more rapid loss of snow and glaciers, on which many rely for water supplies, and contributes to sea-level rise.
  • Climate change - caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels - is making wildfires more ferocious and frequent all around the world. These wildfires are devastating for people, animals and plants. They release smoke from the trees and plants that burn - sometimes in plumes so high they can be easily seen from space. Wildfires fires also burn buildings and vehicles releasing a stew of toxic chemicals into the air and ruining people’s lives.