Air is one of those things we tend to take for granted, or only discuss to complain about. And this makes sense. Even though it’s always right in front of our faces, we don’t see it, and out of sight, out of mind, right?...unless it’s sooty, black smog that’s hard to miss. Many of us have probably heard that London topped out its entire annual air pollution limit just 8 days into 2016 or know that a stroll down a Beijing sidewalk can regularly expose you to pollution levels 6 times greater than those recommended as safe by the EPA. How often though, do you scan a headline praising the surpassing air quality of Estonia or Switzerland? Maybe every once in awhile, but “Air Quality So Good You Won’t Even Notice It” isn’t exactly the kind of clickbait headline media are looking for. As with so many things, the importance of air quality is only pointed out when it is in jeopardy - when it starts to irritate our eyes or breathing. Poor air quality leads to any number of human and environmental health consequences, many with the potential to become catastrophic if left unchecked, so take a deep breath...
Air Quality Counts
While air quality itself may be invisible, it’s effects are not. When sullied with ozone, particulate matter and other airborne pollutants through activities like driving gas vehicles and burning fossil fuels, poor air quality leads to compromised health and shortened life expectancies, even premature death. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 million people die prematurely each year due to the effects of poor air quality. It irritates eyes, noses and throats, exacerbates asthma and - if exposure is long and intense enough - leads to COPD and even lung cancer. Let’s break these down:
Asthma - a chronic condition characterized by an inflammation of the airways in the lungs - causing shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing. Asthma is exacerbated by ozone and PM2.5. It can cause attacks to occur more often and their severity to increase.
COPD - Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) affects anywhere between 11 million and 24 million Americans. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Most commonly associated with smoking, can also be caused by prolonged exposure to polluted air.
Lung Cancer - the biggie. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “long term exposure to combustion-generated fine particulate matter [PM2.5] poses a significant risk for cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality.”
Aside from the public health issues, pollution is also harmful to ecosystems. Studies have shown that ground level ozone reduces crop yield, inhibits tree growth, disrupts photosynthesis and can harm plant foliage in sensitive species. These effects are made worse when ozone combines with other air pollutants. Furthermore, diminished flora severely impacts the animal species that rely on it. Scanty trees and shrubs mean less protection for bird populations; damaged vegetation can mean less food for insects and animals. Air pollution contributes to both eutrophication and acidification, which affect waterways, compromising aquatic ecosystems and sources of drinking water. Harmful chemicals and heavy metals can also bioaccumulate up the food chain, harming wildlife - and eventually humans - as they go.
Finally, air pollution - especially in urban environments - mars the integrity of buildings and monuments that preserve our cultural heritage. As a priority, corrosion and soiling of architecture pales in comparison to risk of lung cancer or COPD, but when we imagine the Indiana we want to leave future generations, why not imagine one that seeks to preserve the future of the natural world as well as our own history?
The Why of It
...Ok, exhale. So that’s the scary part. The truth is that for the last decade or so, air quality across the country and in our state has been steadily improving. Now then, let’s talk about what we gain when we work to protect and improve the quality of the air around us. To start, we mitigate all the nasty human health effects - the asthma, COPD and lung cancer - listed above. We regain many of the costs associated with healthcare and lost productivity due to the effects of poor air quality.
We also slow and eventually reverse the environmental decline done to ecosystems and wildlife populations.
We ensure that the cities, towns and land we leave the next generations are preserved, so that future generations may appreciate and learn from the heritage of our past.
Finally, clean air makes our cities and our state more attractive to families and businesses. It helps us support healthier communities for our members and be a better neighbor to surrounding regions.
As an Indianapolis-based initiative sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, we are dedicated to protecting and improving air quality for all Central Indiana residents and businesses through sustainable community action.
Through education, resources and keys for taking action, we work with community leaders, residents and businesses to improve Indianapolis’ air quality.
Together, we can make Central Indiana one of the Midwest’s most sustainable, livable cities.