Air pollution

Busting Myths About Air Pollution

Gloria Mak

Air quality has become an increasingly significant topic recently, as new scientific studies have shed more light on this subject. Unfortunately, relevant information is usually not widely spread and the general public still doesn’t view this as a severe problem. For example, we often hear news of the ever deteriorating air quality in our world, and we think we know a lot about air which is a vital part of our everyday lives, but some things that you believe about air may actually be actually wrong. It is crucial for us to know more about air before we can do anything to improve the air quality and potentially our environment. Therefore, in this article, I will introduce some common misconceptions about air and tell you what the actual phenomenon really is.

Myth 1: Surgical masks are the best defense against air pollution

You may think that wearing a surgical mask is enough to block out air pollutants, but this is not true. In fact, a typical surgical mask has a pore size of around 5-10 micrometers, whereas air pollutants that pose major health risks for humans are 2.5 micrometers or less. Moreover, such masks rarely cover the nose and mouth completely, resulting in gaps for the pollutants to enter freely, especially from the sides.
According to a study in China, a typical surgical mask allows up to 68% air pollutants to enter. If one wants to limit the pollutants entering the body, an N95 mask (which blocks at least 95% of minute particles) or N99 mask is more preferred.

Myth 2: The health hazards of air pollution and the number of deaths associated with it are exaggerated

Many people think that air pollution is not as serious as it appears in the news. Yet, air pollution is proven to aggravate cardiovascular and respiratory illness, affect the heart and lungs, accelerate aging of lungs, trigger strokes, affect cognitive performance and result in premature deaths. In fact, air pollution accounts for:
• 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
• 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
• 24% of all deaths from stroke
• 25% of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
• 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
These numbers are hard facts, and all these numbers are compiled from scientific and medical research following well-established scientific methodologies. The research papers are published in peer-reviewed journals and are verified by reputed global organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme and WHO, so these resources are trustworthy.
However, for a lot of people, these numbers seem too abstract and people just don’t believe them. If we do not even try to accept these facts, we will never begin the journey to defeat air pollution. ¹


Myth 3: Electric vehicles do not pollute

This is not true, because the actual benefit to the environment depends on your source of energy. For example, if you have a car with a highly efficient rooftop solar park, and its charging is taken care of by solar power, then the pollution will definitely be minimized. However, if your charging point gets electricity from a thermal power plant outside your city which burns fossil fuels, then the reduction in pollution may not be as much.
Moreover, according to research, the weight of electric car batteries causes more wear and tear in tyres, leading to an increase in particulate matter pollution. However, the other advantages in modern electric cars such as regenerative braking try to minimize such emissions. Lifecycle studies of overall environmental impact from electric vehicles shows substantial pollution load, even though it is less than non-electric vehicles.
Having said that, experts believe that the emissions from electric vehicles have always gone down with advancements in technology. Therefore, compared to any non-electric vehicle, it is still advisable to choose electric ones to reduce environmental impact. ¹

Myth 4: Visible air pollution is the most dangerous

This assumption is far from the truth. While visibility of pollutants is an important parameter of pollution measurement, only a few pollutants are discernible to the eye.
Soot, smoke and smog have severe health impacts, and so do invisible pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and ozone. “Sometimes, invisible pollution has more impact than visible pollution as we ignore taking precautions against them. The impacts of these invisible pollutants can range from respiratory problems to premature death. It is important to be aware of such pollution and avoid inhaling them,” says Vishnu Sharma A, an environmental engineer and Assistant Professor at the Manipal Institute of Technology. ¹

Myth 5: Air pollution is worse now than it ever has been.

After hearing all of these rather distressing realities, let’s end on a more positive note, shall we? You may think that air pollution in our world must be at peak levels – sensationalist headlines certainly seem to suggest it. However, studies have shown that, on average, pollution concentrations are actually at their lowest level since records began. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the predominant emission from car exhausts. In 2019, a Defra report showed 2018 had the lowest ever recorded annual mean concentrations of NO2. Levels of NO2 measured at city roadsides have dropped steadily in the last 20 years. This is because, whilst the volume of traffic has increased, vehicle emissions have improved dramatically in comparison with the 1990s and 2000s. Therefore, don’t be too pessimistic about the situation we live in now. As long as we work together to improve, the quality of our air will soon improve.