Everyone knows that air pollution is bad for the respiratory system, for health in general and for the environment, but how bad is bad? According to a March report from the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is causing approximately 7 million premature deaths globally and is the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

The main culprits are carbon dioxide, low-level ozone, particulate matter and methane, yet more are being added to the list as we speak.

Source: Daniela Ginta

Source: Daniela Ginta

With multiple pesticides being sprayed close to schools and other areas in agricultural areas, people are encountering these chemicals on a regular basis. Even for those who don’t live close to conventional farms, exposure still occurs, as the chemicals are carried by wind and water.

According to a 2012 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, the health effects of chronic pesticide exposure can be severe and long-lasting. Early life exposure appears to be linked to pediatric cancer, behavioral changes and decreased cognitive function. The same study outlines possible sources of exposure, and there are many.

Unless policies against cosmetic pesticides are in place, exposure to multiple types of pesticides that are used on homes and public lawns, around the home and in urban areas, is unavoidable. Living close to treated areas and crops carries a higher risk, but chemicals are known to drift to the far corners of the planet where they affect wildlife and people.

A study published this month in PLOS One discusses the health effects of another air pollutant that has been around for a while: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), on the rise due to the burning of fossil fuel and other organic materials.

In the study, high prenatal exposure to PAHs was linked to symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Environmental toxins such as PAHs affect the growing brain before and after birth in ways that are seen many years later as cognitive disorders and behavioral changes. These effects have been on the rise over the last few decades.

Previous research also suggests PAHs may cause cancer in laboratory animals. The mechanism may be in how PAHs attach themselves to the particles in air pollution, such as dust from both natural and man-made sources, and enter organic cells.

Thus, it is not surprising that, as of last year, the WHO added air pollution to the list of known carcinogenic compounds. The next logical step would be to reduce air pollution to levels that will see improvements in the health of both people and the environment.

The adverse effects of air pollution extend beyond human health. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions affect the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun and contributing to global warming. Industrial processes, fossil fueled transportation and power plants pump out carbon monoxide as well as short-lived ubiquitous pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone, and nitrous and sulphur oxides.

All is not lost though. Countries are preparing for the 20th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will take place in Peru this December.

There, the world’s leading nations will discuss air quality laws and regulations. Environmentalists say that tougher, unbiased environmental assessments of present and future industrial projects that involve fossil fuel extraction need to be applied, and existing technologies need to be tweaked or sent to the drawing board altogether in order to make room for renewable energy technologies that will help reduce emissions and air pollution and reduce or avoid the worst impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

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