Why Is Air Pollution A Problem? How Air Pollution Imperceptibly Degrades Your Health

Welcome to my series on air pollution and health. In this first part of this 3 or 4 installment series, I'll consider why the problems of air pollution are terribly underestimated and I'll show you how air pollution has affected human health throughout history.

Keep in mind that I've written a series about particulate matter recently as well. For instance, 1) I've defined what particulate matter is; 2) ten devastating health effects of particulate matter exposure; 3) the best air purifier for lowering particulate matter exposure, and; 4) seven additional strategies to lower your exposure 90%+.

This blog post series will be similar. This blog post series will treat many different air pollutants, not just particulate matter. Examples of air pollutants include Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), toxic mold, etcetera. 

As almost always, moreover, I'll start by defining the problem. Let's find out why many people underappreciate and misunderstand why air pollution is a problem: 



Introduction: Why The Health Effects Of Air Pollution Are Terribly Underestimated

Let start on a little detour - you understand what I'm getting at regarding air pollution very soon.

I'm going to talk about facing the reality of an obvious problem first.

And you know what? 

Consciously acknowledging an elephant in the room can be deceptively difficult.


  • You may be working at an internet company that has losses quarter after quarter, and yet, everyone working there is acting like it's 1998 - having that cheerful attitude they had at the height of the internet stock bubble.
  • A friend of yours, who has smoked for 30 years, has been coughing for a few weeks now. He tells you: "maybe it's the colder weather that's causing these lung problems?"
  • Your colleague claims to be so busy that she doesn't have time to meet up. But you know that she's spending 6 hours a day on her smartphone and in front of a television.
  • It's now 10 years since the world has experienced the last global recession. And yet, government projections, companies, and consumer sentiments all assume that the party will continue for several years (and up to a decade)...


I know...

Acknowledging an elephant in the room takes guts. 

But let's face it:

You may not like what you see, but only by consciously acknowledging problems can you change anything.

Many people living in the city are confronted with such an elephant every day...

You may be too.

Which one?

Air pollution is like an elephant. 

huge pink elephant. Everyone just knows that elephant exists.

And yet, there's a strange phenomenon going on regarding air pollution: most people are unwilling to tackle the problem directly.

That's weird...

Let me tell you why - I'll give an analogy:

Most people know they should exercise, and for that reason they do. If I were to make a rough guesstimate, about 60% of people in my country (the Netherlands) exercise in one form or another.

Many people also know they should watch their diet, and for that reason, they do. To be more precise: most health-conscious people intentionally avoid eating at McDonald's or Burger King 6 times a week.

In the case of air pollution, however, a switch is triggered. 

Let me explain:

Ask the fitness addict who spends 5 evenings a week in the gym and watches her diet meticulously what she does to lower her exposure to air pollution. Or go to a health store and ask the owner what products he's offering to counter air pollutants.

You'll be met with a blank stare...

So ask yourself this simple question:

How many health-conscious people do you know who as carefully watch their air pollution exposure as they care about their exercise or diet?

One percent?

Two percent?

My rough guesstimate is that two percent of health-conscious people watch their air pollution levels - at the maximum.

And yet, if you care about your health you should care about air pollution.

Let me tell you why:

million people die every single year because of the negative health effects of air pollution (on a worldwide basis).[1; 2; 3; 4]

Sure, most of these deaths occur in Asia, but even developed countries have air pollution levels that negatively affect your health no matter where you live.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but even in the developed world hundreds of thousands of people still die due to air pollution's effects.

And no, not every decade but every year...

Of course, there are many different causes of air pollution, such as aerosols from sprays,  natural causes such as forest fires or volcanoes, indoor cooking that "kills" air quality, gases, and tiny particles emitted by car or airplanes, and industrial output...

I'll treat all these causes in a subsequent section...

The key is to realize that all these air pollutants place a tremendous burden on your health.

Think about it: 8 million, that's a lot of people dying each year because of the direct effects of air pollution...

The problem with grasping that "8 million" figure is that everyone doesn't necessarily die from air pollution - even when they're exposed.

Of course, I'm not arguing that more people should die. What I'm saying instead is that the statistics are short-sighted.


Let's return to the figure of 8 million "deaths" per year. A death occurs when someone dies while being able to live many more months or years.

Besides the 8 million yearly deaths, at least 100 times as many people's health is negatively affected.

Even if you don't die, air pollution thus still worsens your health.


If I die in 10 years due to an accident (hopefully not), and I've breathed polluted air for 42 years by then, air pollution has still negatively affected my health over that period.

It's also very likely that you, the reader who's living in a developed country is not going to die directly from air pollution.

And yet, your heart and lung health will be negatively affected by dirty air.

That's bad news...

air pollution is an invisible killer
Immediate perception does not always match reality.
The same is true for air pollution: the problem is worse than you think.


Let's explore why air pollution is so under-emphasized:

Air pollution is called "the invisible killer"...


The stuff you're breathing is like an imperceptible poison drip.

Just imagine that each day, your "loving" partner adds a little bit of arsenic to your meals. Arsenic is a poison and does not have any taste or odor, but you'll start feeling pretty bad once you ingest too much of the stuff.

Over time, even though your partner creates "wonderful" meals for you, incredible damage is being done. 

Your health deteriorates imperceptibly and in time you'll start thinking that you're struck by fate.

Of course that conclusion is completely wrong, but still, if you do think you had "bad luck" you may assume that there's nothing you will do about that situation.

Then your helplessness starts...

The analogy here is that air pollution's health effects are also imperceptible. Due to that imperceptibility, most people are not consciously aware of the air they're breathing--unless, perhaps, they already have lung problems.

That's bad for you, as damage is being done even if you don't think there is. 

I'll tell you...

Don't worry: I'm not preaching despair...

On the contrary:

By taking the problem air pollution head on you can decrease your risks for several health problems, such as lung problems, heart disease, and cancer.

To experience these benefits though, you do need to take action.

To be more precise: you need to take action...

Yes, you...

Don't wait for:

  • the government to change laws so that less air pollution exists
  • a genius comes up with a solution that filters the air perfectly once and for all
  • your health to deteriorate because you're unwilling to face the problem directly
  • being able to move to another location where less air pollution is present

And it's precisely air pollution's invisibility why so few health-conscious people take action in the first place...

Many people:

  • just don't know what to do about air pollution. You may not know either...
  • may have never become fully consciously aware of how bad the health effects of air pollution really are. (After reading this blog post those negative health effects will be undeniable...)
  • think there's nothing they can do about the problem, or that the government is already doing enough...

In this 25,000+ words guide - broken up into several blog posts - I'll give you the power to take care of your air pollution exposure.

But let's consider why you should not wait for governments and (international) institutions to reduce the health effects of air pollution for you first...

A worldwide campaign has set a goal of halving air pollution deaths worldwide by 2030.[518] Halving air pollution deaths still entails that 4 million people are being killed on a yearly basis.

Many international treaties also tragically fail.


Consider the eight "Millennium Development Goals" that were set in the year 2000 for 2015. The only reason the poverty reduction goal was met is because of China's rapid economic development during that period.

Government policy had little to do with that accomplishment--more free markets did.

And even if governments and health institutions succeed in their goal of reducing air pollution by half, you'll still be exposed to dangerous levels.

An additional valid argument exists, however, that tells you why you should not wait for governments to rescue you:

Governments have (almost) no direct incentive to reduce air pollution. 

Yes, really...


Reducing air pollution directly hurts economic development. Don't believe me?

Consider these examples:

Let's say you:

  • no longer allow as many airplanes to fly from bigger cities. In that case, people will simply move to another airport and the less polluting city takes an economic hit.
  • instate very high airplane pollution taxes in the US. As a response, US citizens may drive to Mexico and Canada to avoid pollution taxes - these pollution taxes directly hit the US economy.
  • prevent polluting cars and trucks from entering cities. In that case, people will visit another city where their polluting diesel car may still venture. Prices of goods in the less polluted city may also increase because supply lines are harmed.
  • strictly enforce lower air pollutant outputs from factories, ban industry from settling near residential zones, and necessitate industry to buy expensive filtering. Result? The competitive position of that industry goes down relative to other countries--hurting the country's economy.
  • let 50% fewer cars enter cities or have all car owners buy a very expensive air filter on their car-exhaust. Consequence? Car transportation, which is central to the health of most economies, would go down.

There's no clear incentive to fully eliminate the problem of air pollution (yet)...


Advanced explanation: from an economic standpoint, the example given above is oversimplified. The health gains due to lowering air pollution also has advantages such as increased productivity and saving healthcare costs. In the short-term, however, pollution probably maximizes economic growth.


Solution: if you value your health, you have to take your air pollution exposure into your own hands

Again, keep in mind that I'm not trying to make you depressed.

There's good news too:

Air quality has been improving in most of the developing world. Society-wide improvements in air quality are thus possible. Take a look at the levels of common air pollutants that are emitted in the United States:[20]

different emissions levels of air pollutants over the course of decades
(Ammonia levels are not correctly displayed)



Sulfur dioxide emissions have gone down 90%, and tiny particles numbers that are created as a byproduct of industry or transportation (PM2.5 and PM10) have almost halved.

(I'll tell you more about these pollutants in a moment...)

And there's more good news:

Even in more polluted countries such as India or China, the number of people dying from air pollution is steadily going down.

Sure, in absolute terms--because these countries' populations are growing--air pollution takes more lives than ever. Quantified as years of life that are lost per 100,000 inhabitants, however, deaths due to air pollution are going down. 

But again: today air pollution levels are still negative for your health, and in 2030 the same is expected to be true.

A decline is not enough to save yourself--you'll want to minimize your exposure. My goal with this blog post series on air pollution is two-fold:

  • Help you fully understand the problem of air pollution as well as most air pollutants.
  • Reduce your air pollutant exposure as much as possible, up to a jaw-dropping 95%..

Please keep in mind that this ultimate guide is part of a wider series on the negative health effects of air pollution.

The previous installment of this series treated the topic of "particulate matter".

In that series, I claimed that you could reduce the negative effects of exposure dramatically by implementing a few solutions in your life, such as using air purifiers, planting vegetation, and avoiding "hot spot" locations of particulate matter.

Many of these solutions will return later in this blog post - in the fifth section I'll give you fifteen different solutions to reduce your inhaled level of air pollutants.

But first I'll tell you about the history of air pollution. The reason for including that history is that many people think that our ancestors were also exposed to toxic air every day.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let thus go back in time: 




The History Of The Health Effects Of Air Pollution 

Contrary to popular assumption, the negative health effects of air pollution didn't originate in the 19th century for us humans...

During the 19th century which contained the largest part of the Industrial Revolution, the number of factories grew exponentially. As a result, air pollution was created en masse (assuming you accept that there was such a "revolution" historically).

Air pollution is as old as humanity instead, and goes much farther back in time than humans have existed.

You can, for example, even make claim that dinosaurs became extinct because of air pollution.[5; 6; 7; 8]


66 million years ago a meteor 6-9 miles in diameter hit Mexico, creating the Chicxulub crater. Dust enveloped the earth as a result of the meteor impact (together with similarly timed volcanic eruptions) and cooled down the planet.

(Non-flying) dinosaurs were dependent on external heating from sunlight and could no longer survive. 

75% of all other species went extinct as well. The health effects of air pollution are thus as old as this planet...

There's yet another reason to assume that air pollution arose much earlier than the 19th century: 

Already by the discovery of creating fire, your human ancestors started polluting the air they're breathing.[9; 10; 11; 12]

The discovery of (intentionally using) fire occurred about 800,000 years ago, and our human species originated ~200,000 years ago.

Keep in mind that thus our it's your human-like ancestors - commonly called hominins - who learned to control fire first. Hominins are millions of years old

That control of fire does not exclusively have beneficial health effects. The obvious downside is that air pollutants are created.

The upside, of course, is that fires generate lots of heat. That heat helped our ancestors survive in colder environments such as Northern Europe.

But remember the dates I just gave you? 

Essentially, the brain development of our ancestors started millions of years before the discovery of fire-control. During most of our hominin history air pollution was thus absent, except the pollution created by natural causes such as volcanoes and forest fires.

Let me give an example...

Your homo habilis ancestor who's shown below had a massively increased brain capacity compared to our common chimpanzee ancestors, and yet, did not control fire:

After the discovery of fire, fireplaces were used in caves. Fires in caves implies that your ancestors also exposed themselves to air pollution from that fire - smoke is very difficult to remove from caves.

Fast-forward a few million years: 

At the onset of civilization and agriculture around 10,000 B.C., humans began to settle in one location. Fire then allowed for indoor cooking.

Of course, indoor fire was also used as heating sources, especially in colder areas of the globe.

The bad news?

Indoor cooking dramatically increases the air pollutants levels you're exposed to compared to creating fires outside. 

It's thus simple to conclude that air pollution did thus not start in the 19th century...

For thousands of years, fires were one of the main sources of air pollution.

Other air pollution sources existed back then as well though. If you were a smith who was working bronze or iron, you'd be exposed to other toxins such as heavy metals.

Lead, a toxic heavy metal, was also used in construction and to preserve wine. Smelting that lead would have negatively affected your health, even though people didn't know about lead's harmful effects (yet) back then.

Air quality was surprisingly considered important back then, even though people did not fully understand why.

Some examples:[13]

  • In ancient Greeks and Romans knew that inner-city air was of lower quality than the air found in nature outside the city
  • Slave traders in the Age of Exploration discovered that slaves did not survive without sufficient ventilation
  • Chimney sweeps had the reputation of being in poor health a few centuries ago

In the middle ages already, your ancestors also invented ways to make indoor fires less polluting.

A "Hearth" was invented, a central fireplace inside a home with an open hole in the roof so that most smoke could exit the building without polluting the entire room. Chimneys that direct the smoke directly away from the indoor environment were only invented in the 12th century. 

The indoor usage of fireplaces remained relatively primitive well until the 18th century. For most of humanity's written history, indoor air pollution has thus been "part of the deal". 

Only in the late 19th century, with the invention of electricity, was it no longer necessary to have a fireplace in each house for food preparation and heating.

Just seven generations ago, at the ending of the 18th century, the chemical revolution took place. Humans began to scientifically dissect components that are contained in the air and study their effects.

A French chemist called Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier discovered (and named) oxygen as one of the gases that are subsumed in the air. 

Before Lavoisier, other chemists had already discovered that there was no "uniform compound" which is "air". Instead, chemists knew that air actually is made up of several individual substances.

During the chemical revolution, different chemical elements were measured and categorized, which led to the possibility of studying individual substances subsumed into that air. In turn, that chemical revolution indirectly gave rise to the possibility of actively controlling that air...

A full understanding of air pollution, however, only developed slowly: the pollution problem became (much) worse before it got better. While some problematic periods of air pollution existed in big cities such as London between the 16th and 18th centuries, the air pollution problem really took off after that time.

Surprisingly, air pollution was mainly considered an "indoor" problem up until the beginning of the 20th century


Factory air pollution was unregulated at the beginning of the 20th century. That changed with a few developments in the 1950s and 1960s, when the harmful effects of air pollution became completely undeniable.

The great smog of London in 1952, during which lethal levels of sulfur dioxide were emitted into the air, killed a total of 10,000 people and made 100,000 ill. That smog led to the first wave of air quality regulations.[16; 17] 

In 1962, a book called "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson subsequently made the world aware of the side-effects of pesticide use.[18; 19] 

Pesticides are also (partially) spread through the air...

From the 1950s and 60s of the 20th century, humans became painfully aware that their living environment did not just revolve around the house they were living in--the factory nearby, pesticides sprayed on your food or into the air, and traffic could poison the air you're breathing so that your health was affected.

Most people have nonetheless remained very complacent in controlling the air quality in their environment. From the 50s up until today, almost everyone assumes that air pollution is the government's task to deal with, not your individual responsibility.

(Hopefully that attitude will change after you read this guide)

And because of developments in the mid previous century, even teenagers are aware that air pollution affects their health today.

Ask any kid whether he considers smoking or breathing in car exhaust is healthy, and (s)he'll answer "no".

Two hundred years ago, people didn't know that air pollution was (that) damaging.

A simple analogy to understand that absence of knowledge can be made to bacteria and viruses: before the mid 19th century, medical practitioners were not aware of hygiene's importance, nor were bacteria or viruses identified separately.

Initially, viruses were even presumed to be the same thing as bacteria--until scientific experiments proved otherwise.[510] That distinction between viruses and bacteria nevertheless took time to be accepted by the scientific community.

The same is true for understanding air pollution...

Understanding of air pollution's health effects only slowly developed through the last few decades. That development is not done today, as new studies keep emerging. In some ways, air pollution is still misunderstood by the general public.

In developed nations, most people now assume that air quality is a problem that's located outside their homes. Scientific reality, on the contrary, shows that indoor air quality matters as much today as it did during (pre-)history.[13-15] 


Modern human beings spend 90% of their time indoors. Indoor air pollutants levels can also be two to ten times as high as outdoors.[511-513]



In most cases, outdoor air pollutants simply enter buildings but never leave. 

Talk about an unwelcome guest...

Let's therefore quickly determine whether you're affected by indoor air pollution as well. Consider this simple test:

  • Is the air outside the building you're spending time in obviously polluted? (If you're living in a big city the answer is automatically "yes")
  • Is it reasonable to assume that - because you're not actively dealing with the problem air pollution - that the air pollution ends up in your house?

If you answered "yes" twice, then congratulations: you can improve your health without having to spend thousands of hours in the gym, because indoor air pollution can be relatively straightforward to deal with in many cases.

In fact, simply integrating the solutions  I'm suggesting later on in this blog post (section five) will guarantee improvement.

Let's, therefore, start digging into the problem of air pollution... 

Oh, one last thing:

Since writing my previous blog post about reducing particulate matter exposure I've had questions about whether air pollution should not just be accepted as a "given".

That's a great question, actually, but my answer to that question is a resounding "no".

Consider exposure levels of "sulfur dioxide", a common byproduct of industrial processes that's emitted into the air:[20]

sulfur dioxide emission levels graph

As you can see, sulfur dioxide levels were pretty low before the 1850s compared to the late 20th century.

99% of sulfur dioxide contained in the air today ended up there because of human action. So no, nature herself does not put extreme amounts of sulfur dioxide into the air (for longer periods of time).

Additionally, air pollution is also unhealthy, even when coming from natural sourcesAir pollution should thus not be accepted as a given. 

And of course, before the Industrial Revolution coal was also burned in homes - creating a sulfur dioxide problem. Nevertheless, the quantities emitted into the air only became extreme with the emergence of the factory system and mass burning of fossil fuels.

You're thus at greater danger today than in 17000, although the nature of your exposure has changed.

The bottom line is this: most air pollutants found in the air today were not present for your evolutionary ancestors in current quantities

Again: you'll want to lower your exposure...

In the next section, I'll look at thirteen different types of air pollutants and their health effects. 

Fasten your seat belt, because that section is going to be somewhat depressing...

By the way, want a no-fail strategy to reduce your air pollution exposure by up to 90%? Download my 10 air pollution laws infographic below:



Finishing Thoughts: Understanding The Problem To Find Solutions

I really hope you enjoyed this first introduction about how many air pollutants are subsumed in the air due to human action, and the history of air pollution.

Also, I hope you understand that air pollution isn't a simple side-issue that you can ignore if you want to optimize your health.

In the next installments of this blog post series, I'll go over many different air pollutants, tell you why they're important and what health consequences exist. I also offer specific options for reducing your exposure to air pollution, which can lower your exposure up to 99%!

So, despite the grave message in this blog post, there's a lot of room for hope!


This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com. 


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