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Op-ed: Ignore It, and It May Just Cost You Your Life

An award winning op-ed in IMS’s “Editorial Project”

By Nicholas Papapanou

Air pollution. The way we harm the atmosphere around us. The way we affect the air we breathe. Some people try to limit how much of it they produce, while others don’t give any thought to their contribution to the issue. Why are the latter making a terrible mistake?

Here’s the answer.

Exposure to polluted air causes 6.5 million deaths globally a year, according to a recent study from the International Energy Agency.

Did I get your attention? Good.

The pollutants released by human activity are harming the quality of Earth’s air. Now, it’s humans’ turn to be harmed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 92% of Earth’s population lives in areas with unsafe air pollution levels. Meanwhile, air pollution has been repeatedly linked with numerous dangerous health effects, along with countless horrible impacts on the environment and wildlife, which I will not get into. Let’s face it: if I wrote this editorial about some unknown species of lizard dying in the Amazon because of air pollution, the majority of you wouldn’t care at all; but air pollution’s effect on human health and wellbeing is a real and very serious issue. All jokes aside, hazardous air pollutants can seriously harm our health, or even worse… kill us.

Several reputable organizations, including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the WHO, have extensively explored, studied, and reported the many health problems linked to air pollution. Articles published by these organizations show that relatively minor effects include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, upper respiratory infections, skin rashes, headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. The more serious and in many cases fatal problems linked to air pollution are asthma, kidney and liver damage, nervous system and immune system damage, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and chronic respiratory diseases. Air pollution has also been tied to miscarriages and birth defects. Sadly, children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing heart and/or lung problems are increasingly susceptible to the effects of common air pollutants. Scientists still have a lot to learn about the health problems caused by air pollution – for all we know, these could be just the tip of the iceberg, and that’s really scary.

Photo by National Geographic

Photo by National Geographic

Evidently, the risk of contracting potentially detrimental health problems from air pollution is far too great to ignore, especially considering that air pollution is such a widespread phenomenon. But some of you may still have doubts. Some may think, surely here, in New York and the U.S. as a whole, the problem isn’t that bad. This, for the most part, is true. According to the findings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air quality index levels across America are substantially lower than places like, say, China or India. There are exceptions, but the problem of air pollution in New York and most of the United States, while definitely still present, is truly not as bad as in many other parts of the world.

At least, not yet.

What I want to stress is that although we are quite lucky to not have such a big problem, where we live right now, we can’t use this as an excuse for being lazy, careless, and uninvolved. We too may have a huge problem on our hands in the alarmingly near future. With an expanding population, an ever-growing economy, and simply an overall increase in human activity, the air pollution here in America can quickly get out of hand.

So, for those of you who are thinking, well, I get the problem, but how are we supposed to prevent it?, the answer is simple: each and every one of us must pay attention to and try our best to change our daily contribution to this pandemic.

All you need is the motivation to understand the importance of reducing the amount of air pollution you create each day. Hopefully, you have gained this motivation thus far (remember all the horrible and potentially fatal health problems?) Beyond that, the actions themselves are quite simple.

Commute eco-friendly by walking or riding a bike instead of driving, use public transportation, limit the time you spend driving, and think of investing in a fuel-efficient, hybrid, or electric car, as motor vehicle emissions are one of the most significant sources of the most common and harmful air pollutants.

Do your best to conserve energy at home and at work: turn off the lights and any appliances when leaving a room, limit the time spent using these appliances, and consider investing in eco-friendly dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, and more. Less energy used means fewer pollutants emitted by the power plants that produce the energy. Fewer pollutants emitted means cleaner air and cleaner air means a healthier you. Many of these solutions are so simple and quick, it’s a crime to not adopt them, especially when the effect can be so great.

Want to create change on a more systemic level? Although you most likely cannot change the actions of the big industrial companies directly, which produce much of the world’s air pollution, you can still make a difference by voting for local government officials that push for improved energy use in factories and industry pollution reform.

So, please do yourself, your health, and your wellbeing a favor. Do what you can to reduce the pollution of Earth’s air. Elect local government officials who are environmentally conscious and involved. Cut down on your daily contribution in any way you can. Cut down like your life depends on it, because, quite honestly, it very well may.

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