by Sara Ryan
Alongside clean water, clean air plays an essential role towards living a long and healthy life. The Air Quality index (AQI) refers to the amount of pollution, created by both human and natural causes, present within a region’s air. The AQI allows for local health officials to predict what associated health issues may affect a certain region by focusing on the air concentrations of five major pollutants:
- Ground-level ozone (secondary pollutants formed by the action of sunlight on primary pollutants, e.g. nitrogen oxides from vehicle emissions and volatile organic compounds from solvents).
- Particle pollution (also known as particulate matter, e.g. suspended dust)
- Carbon monoxide
- Sulphur dioxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
Of these five pollutants, ground level ozone and particle pollution currently pose the greatest threats to human health. Using AQI counts, the map above by Air Plumes Lab highlights the differing air quality levels around the globe. As of 2023, Zurich, Switzerland boasts the cleanest global air quality. In contrast, Dammam, Saudi Arabia on average hosts the worst air quality in the world. Although air quality levels do shift regularly due to moving air currents and atmospheric processes, the Sahara, Middle East and Central Asia consistently report unsatisfactory air quality.
In the case of the Sahara, poor air quality is almost inevitable due to high levels of dust in the region. According to a 2019 study, dust inhalation may have been responsible for well over a quarter of a million deaths in Saharan Africa. As for the Middle East and Central Asia, extremely high population densities in countries such as Pakistan, India, and China mean cities in particular produce a colossal amount of airborne pollution(e.g. soot). To make matters worse, many countries in these regions are classified as developing, making the shift to more eco-friendly processes and manufacturing models is often more difficult to reach.
The deceptive nature of the location of air pollutants has allowed for many places around the globe, including Europe, to appear as low-level air polluters. Wind circulation patterns disperse European air pollution around the globe. Due to the decreased air circulation in the atmosphere above Central Asia in the winter months, these harmful suspended particles often accumulate, forming an urban smog.
Infants, adults over the age of 65, and people with lung diseases such as asthma are most vulnerable to the effects of poor air quality. A 2020 study reported over 1,200 premature deaths per year in people under the age of 18 occur in Europe due to poor air quality.
The most basic solution to reduce air pollution is to move away from fossil fuels, and replace them with alternative, cleaner energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Efforts to make the switch to green energy have already been felt. Since 2001, there has been a 37% decrease in the average concentration of fine particle pollution across the US. However, recent wildfires across Canada have highlighted how the battle for clean air is far from over.