Every Breath You Take

Outdoor particulate pollution claims over 3.1 million lives worldwide every year, five times the number of deaths from malaria and slightly less than double the current AIDS death rate. The problem is especially severe in Asia, and, unfortunately, discussion of the issue is abstruse and opaque.

BANGKOK – Fearsome stories about migrating Indonesian haze, post-Diwali smog in northern India, and the return of the “airpocalypse” in China tell of Asia’s recent air-pollution woes. Not confined to Asia, outdoor particulate pollution claims over 3.1 million lives worldwide every year, five times the number of deaths from malaria and slightly less than double the current AIDS death rate.

Airborne pollutants, especially fine particles (smaller than 2.5 microns, or roughly the width of a strand of a spider web), enter deep into the lungs and from there enter the blood stream, causing cardiopulmonary disease, cancer, and possibly premature births. Just how significant are these health risks?

Unfortunately, discussion of the subject is often opaque. Poor air quality is often described as reaching a certain “AQI” (Air Quality Index) level, or as being a certain degree above a particular World Health Organization standard. But the general public might better understand the situation if it were framed in terms that compare easily with more familiar hazards.

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