OSEA Safety Blog

Global Warming & Air Pollution

Wednesday, October 7, 2020 Tiffany Bartz

Air pollution refers to the release of pollutants into the air that is detrimental to human health and the planet. The Clean Air Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.

Most air pollution comes from energy use and production. Burning fossil fuels releases gases and chemicals into the air. Air pollution not only contributes to climate change, but is also exacerbated by it. Carbon dioxide and methane raise the earth’s temperature. Air pollution is then worsened by that increased heat: Smog forms when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation.

Smog occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot, or “particulate matter,” is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens (in the form of gas or solids) that are carried in the air. Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs.

Hazardous air pollutants or HAPs are either deadly or have severe health risks even in small amounts. Almost 200 are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. Benzene can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts, it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn. Mercury affects the central nervous system.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are toxic components of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer. In one recent study, the children of mothers who’d had higher PAH exposure during pregnancy had slower brain processing speeds and worse symptoms of ADHD.

Mold and allergens from trees, weeds, and grass are also carried in the air, are exacerbated by climate change, and can be hazardous to health. They are not regulated by the government and are less directly connected to human actions, but they can be considered air pollution. Mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks or an allergic response, and some molds can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale.

Pollen allergies are worsening because of climate change. Lab and field studies are showing that the more carbon dioxide pollen-producing plants—especially ragweed—are grown in, the bigger they grow and the more pollen they produce. Climate change also extends the pollen production season, and some studies are beginning to suggest that ragweed pollen itself might be becoming a more potent allergen. That means more people will suffer runny noses, fevers, itchy eyes, and other symptoms.

Greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures and all the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and increasing transmission of infectious diseases. Limiting global warming, strong reductions in methane emissions, reducing black carbon and ground-level ozone have key benefits for sustainable development: they protect health and avoid premature deaths by improving air quality; they prevent crop losses yearly; and they can prevent the climate from reaching tipping points that can exacerbate long-term climate impacts and make adapting to climate change harder, especially for the poor and most vulnerable.

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