Air Quality Index and Permeable Pollutants
I could feel that the air was heavy, I was short of breath more often, and it hurt to breathe. I figured some of this could be due to the billowing black smoke diving out from the backs of trucks and cars, as well as the burning plastic and grass that charred the ground and fumed up into the air. Dust would also rise up as cars or wind took to the dirt roads. I would periodically be cleaning bits of red sand from my glasses, the corners of my eyes, and around my nostrils. I also took a guess that there may not be many safe regulations around different industrial sites in the city.
A world away and years later in New Delhi, I looked on at auto-rickshaw drivers and acknowledged the fact that they spent hours a day, everyday toting people around the city. They breathed in the air, many not wearing any protection, and the thought of this made me want to change the reality, however small of a change that could be. The sources of air pollution came beyond the rows of vehicles that passed by each other daily, but what is in the air exactly, that makes it so harmful to breathe?
The non-profit World Air Quality Index runs a real-time world air quality index by gathering data from over 10,000 air monitoring stations around the world. Selection of which stations to choose is based off of multiple Environmental Protection Agencies' standards. Because the data is in real-time, validity is not ensured, but multiple measures are set in place to detect abnormal readings to enhance accuracy. There are various types of air pollutants that are measured, and here I focus on particulate matter.
There are multiple types of pollutants in the air, one of the most hazardous kinds is particulate matter (PM), a fine substance made of liquid or solid, some which may not appear until they reach greater atmospheric heights. They are created by many different types of sources, including volcanic eruptions, agricultural burning, motor vehicles, and dust storms.
4.2 million deaths a year occur due to outdoor air pollution. Those who are at a higher risk of being affected by breathing in this substance are the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those with existing respiratory illnesses. There are consequences for acute and long-term exposure, including cardiac issues, birth defects, and an increase for respiratory illnesses. A typical surgical mask will not protect against inhalation, and proper masks that specifically filter out PM are required if one wants to be protected in a high-risk area. Another form of protection is to stay inside or to avoid strenuous activity on days where levels of PM are greater, though it is possible that some outdoor PM may get inside homes.
PM 2.5 Levels Around the World
It is not all that surprising to see that South Asia has the highest levels of PM2.5 pollution. Just in November 2021, New Delhi went into a partial lockdown due to the hazardous conditions of air quality. It is more common in the winter, when cold temperatures keep the smog down closer to the ground. Half of the world's population is exposed to very low quality air, with the majority living in China and India. Nepal has the highest levels of exposure to PM2.5, followed by countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahara desert is a contributor to exposure to these particles, as sand is kicked up and carried away by winds.
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