Clean air is essential for a healthy life. Unfortunately, in many places the air is very polluted, which causes many health problems. In the Netherlands, 18,000 people per year die ten years prematurely due to the concentrations of particulate matter in the air. Children, in particular, suffer the consequences of air pollution. They are more likely to have respiratory problems, suffer from allergies and develop weak lungs. Through the ‘Clean air for everyone’ project it is possible to make a contribution that will help make the air a bit cleaner for everyone.
The ‘Clean Air for Everyone’ project is structured around the areas shown below. For each of these, partners will be sought who are capable of making a difference in a particular area.
In contrast to foods and drinking water, air is everywhere, and polluted air is very difficult to avoid. The emissions of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) cause the most damage to our health.
Children suffer the greatest consequences, and polluted air has an impact on their intelligence. The brains of children with lead in their blood, from polluted air, do not develop properly. Belgian research has shown that such children score no fewer than 17 IQ points lower than children who hardly have any of this substance in their blood. Polluted air also increases the chance of developing asthma. An UtrechtUniversity study showed that children who are exposed to polluted air, such as those who live along busy roads, have a 30% greater chance of suffering from asthma.
The costs of polluted air are high. A study conducted by environmental consultancy firm CE Delft shows that these costs pertain mainly to premature deaths and additional health care expenses.
Air pollution is understood to be the contamination of the atmosphere with harmful substances. Many contaminating substances originate from industry, agriculture, traffic and households. These sources contaminate the outdoor air with pollutants produced by the related combustion processes. Examples include nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, benzene, carbon monoxide, volatile organic substances (VOS), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic.
Air pollutants can travel great distances in the upper atmosphere before they return to the ground. Only then are we exposed to them and can they cause health damage.
Particulate matter & aerosols
Air pollution such as smog and particulate matter are the result of chemical reactions of certain substances in the outdoor air. Natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires also cause air pollution. This can result in the release of substances such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide.
The particulate matter has an impact on both the air quality and the climate. In climate-related studies, the word we usually hear is ‘aerosols’, but this refers to the same particles. Aerosols impact the climate in two ways: they disperse or absorb light (the direct effect on the radiation balance) and influence cloud formation and precipitation (indirect effects). The uncertainty in the results produced by climate models is primarily due to the lack of knowledge about these effects. Accurate, long-term measurements of clouds, aerosols and radiation in all layers of the atmosphere are required to reduce these uncertainties.
The composition of the air also has an effect on the climate. The balance between the quantity of sunlight that passes through the atmosphere to the Earth and the radiated heat that escapes into space through the atmosphere determines the climate on Earth. A change in the composition of the atmosphere resulting from human activity can have an impact on the climate. This is how increasing emissions of substances such as carbon dioxide cause the ‘greenhouse effect’. Because the light and the heat radiation travel through the entire atmosphere, it it is important to know the vertical composition of the air layers and how light and heat radiation directly and indirectly interact with the substances that are present.
Along more than 400 urban roads the air quality is too poor to meet the European health standards. Research conducted by the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences (IRAS) has shown that asthmatic children exposed to air pollution produced by vehicle exhaust gases experience a worsening of their symptoms.
One third of the one million people in the Netherlands who have respiratory problems suffer when exposed to wood smoke such as that from wood-burning stoves and outdoor fireplaces. They have difficulty breathing when their neighbours have a fire. Asthma sufferers, in particular, struggle with this problem. Their symptoms are aggravated more by wood smoke than by emissions from traffic, industry or agriculture. Medicines are often inadequate to completely relieve their suffering, and this is particularly true if they have developed a ‘hypersensitivity’. This exaggerated immune response to wood smoke can also produce other medical problems, such as sinus infections accompanied by pain and nausea. Wood smoke can also cause chronic sore throat or headaches.
Clean air plays an important role in the battle against respiratory illnesses. Clean air is also essential for people who already have difficulty breathing. The objective of the ‘Clean air for Everyone’ project is to create social awareness of clean air. We are therefore calling upon governments, companies, non-profit organisations and private individuals to join forces. The activities can involve influencing policy, developing services and products that promote clean air or placing concern for clean air on the political agenda. All these efforts will focus on the goal of establishing the broadest possible social consensus and raising a collective fist against air pollution.