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THOMPSON: Link between air pollution and climate change can't be ignored

May 03, 2021 - 12:00 PM

During the past 16 months, nearly 3.2 million people worldwide have died from a raging COVID-19 pandemic that has held us tightly in its grip. However, in sheer numbers, that human loss pales in comparison to those who died prematurely from a decades long nemesis, simple air pollution.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost three times as many people - 9.3 million - have died from air pollution during the span of the COVID pandemic. That doesn’t count another 5.7 million people who have died from indoor air pollution, largely from cooking with sources that give off carbon monoxide, radon, nitrogen dioxide and second-hand smoke.

That’s 15 million men, women and children who have died from the health effects of air pollution since January 2020. As incredulous as those numbers might sound, they are real...and understandable when you consider the poor conditions billions of people around the world live with every day.

Ninety percent of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds WHO pollutant guidelines...with low- and middle-income nations suffering most. Some of those you might expect...large countries like China and India...and some smaller that you might not...like Mexico and Thailand. Air pollution is a contributing factor in strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases, among other diseases and causes of death.

As is the case with other diseases, those most at risk are children, the elderly and poor people.

Air pollution is a double-whammy of sorts...affecting not only what we breathe but climate change, as well, which brings its own set of problems.

Not that we in Canada are insensitive, but it’s difficult to appreciate how dire the air pollution problem is when we don’t live with it as visibly every day as do so many others. Air pollution is highly correlated with median per capita income, according to the World Bank...and Canada ranks second only to the U.S. in that measure.

I must admit shock when I discovered during my research for this column that last year 500,000 babies around the world died from poor air quality...about 330,000 from their parents burning charcoal, wood and animal dung indoors for cooking. Smog or PM2.5 - particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers or one-hundredth the width of a human hair - from burning fuel and exhaust killed another 170,000 babies.

Air pollution is, of course, a worldwide problem...and while most of the 20 most populous nations have improved air quality over the past decade...India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Japan have gone backwards. In India alone last year, 1.67 million people died from long-term exposure to air pollution.

And while various organizations like WHO and the World Bank track data about air pollution and climate change by nation...the stark reality is that what happens in India or China or anywhere else does not stay neatly over that nation’s borders. It is one world...and we share it.

Besides, even relatively minor degradations in air quality affect our health. Consider past summers when smoke from fires blanketed the Okanagan causing many of us to suffer from various respiratory, sinus and eye ailments.

We cannot ignore the inextricably linked relationship of air pollution and climate change. The air we breath costs us more than US$5.11 trillion in welfare losses every year, not to mention the actual loss of 11 million souls.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a real threat...here and around the world...and until people in faraway places are vaccinated it’s not over. But we need to respond to the looming threats of air quality and climate change in better fashion.

Admittedly, it’s hard to worry about the depth of the moat when the crocodiles are nipping at your keister. But the clock is ticking and people - a lot more people - are dying.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2021
InfoTel News Ltd

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