Air pollution has been a problem for this planet since the start of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the smog-belching factories of industry were not at all considered the eventual doom they would become. If anything, those factories were humankind’s salvation and industry was a path to prosperity for all humankind. But centuries’ worth of atmospheric damage has taught us much about the consequences of such unchecked pollution, and as society strives to become more sustainable, many still wonder, what can we do to prevent air pollution?
What causes air pollution?
Air pollution is defined as the release of pollutants into the air that are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. Most air pollution comes from energy use and production, but specifically from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and oil. These burnt fuels release chemicals and gasses like carbon dioxide and methane into the air, both of which raise the Earth’s temperature.
According to John Walke, the director of the Clean Air Project, this process is part of a destructive feedback loop, as air pollution contributes to climate change and is also exacerbated by climate change. Smog forms more readily in increased heat, when the weather is warmer and there is more ultraviolet radiation. Air pollution leads to climate change, which makes it warmer, allowing for more air pollution.
The vicious cycle is compounded by the increased production of allergenic air pollutants like mold and pollen. The damp conditions caused by extreme weather make the climate more ideal for mold, and pollen season tends to be longer when the weather is warmer overall.
What can we do to prevent air pollution?
There are several things that we as a society can do to prevent further air pollution, many of which we are already doing. According to Walke, the first step is burning less gasoline, as fossil fuels' effect on climate change has been well-proven over the years.
Many world organizations and movements have made efforts over the years to curb air pollution and climate change. The Paris Agreement is one of the most well-known modern ones, but the Clean Air Act of 1967 is perhaps one of the most influential environmental programs to date regarding air pollution. Despite the U.S. recent pullback on global environmental initiatives, the Clean Air Act still authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.
There are many other ways that society is pushing towards a greener, cleaner future as well. Many countries are opting for renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal, or wind power over coal and oil. In addition, environmental regulations are preventing manufacturers from needlessly polluting by encouraging or stipulating cleaner practices. These measures are not adopted the world over just yet, mind you, but they are a step in the right direction.
How can I as an individual prevent air pollution?
According to the EPA, there are some actions that you, as an individual, can take in order to reduce air pollution. Some of these can be taken on a daily basis, while others are dependent on the quantifiable air quality of any given day.
Choosing to walk, ride a bike, take public transport, carpool, or invest in an eco-friendly hybrid or electric vehicle can go a long way in minimizing your own environmental impact. If you do have a car or other vehicle that operates on gasoline, keep it tuned so that it does not needlessly burn fuel. The same is true for car tires — keep them properly inflated at all times. Low tires mean the engine needs to work harder and burns more gas.
Avoid burning wood or leaves in your backyard or fireplace. Consider switching to non-gas-powered lawn mower and garden tools. Electric or battery-operated mowers and weed whackers are available at many mainstream hardware stores. Be sure to conserve energy at home, at work, and everywhere you can. You can do this by checking if solar or wind power options are available in your area. If you are still on conventional electricity, utilize energy-efficient bulbs and appliances whenever possible.
Another unsung way to minimize air pollution is to buy locally. Food, clothing, anything you can, really. The less trucking that food needs in order to come to you, the better. Not everyone has this option, of course, but those who do have access to local farms, markets, and the like should take advantage of them.
How can you protect yourself from the effects of air pollution?
Protecting yourself from air pollution is as easy as keeping an eye on the reported pollution levels of any given day. If it’s a high pollution day and the air quality is bad, avoid or limit your time outdoors. Ozone levels tend to be lower in the morning though, so if you are going to go out or go for a jog, that would be the best time. In addition, stay away from heavily trafficked roads, the farther you are from cars, the better.
Unfortunately, air pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities. Learning more about environmental racism is an important step in understanding just how messed up pollution and the climate crisis really are.
On top of all this, wear sunscreen whenever you go out in direct sunlight. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists. Ultraviolet radiation comes through the weakened ozone layer much more harshly than it used to. This radiation can cause skin damage and skin cancer, so please, remember to wear sunscreen.