It is not only people with asthma and allergies who suffer from the dangers of smog.
Smog gets its name from the combination of smoke and fog. The term was coined in 1900s London, but today smog is considered a combination of ground-level ozone and pollution. While ozone above the Earth helps protect the planet, at the ground level it causes harm. Smog develops from “photochemical reactions involving volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight” that create ozone. Pollutants in smog comes from factories, power plants, car exhausts, hair spray, paint, solvents, charcoal starter fluid, “plastic popcorn packaging”, boats, trucks, and buses. The most smog comes from traffic, combined with sunshine, high temperatures, and calm winds. Geography and weather impact the amount of smog that occurs, and it can stay trapped over a city for many days. It may even be “more severe away from the pollution sources” due to the fact that the “reacting chemicals are being moved by the wind”. In the US, smog affects major cities, but it is also a global problem. Smog is not only visible, but it is also measured by the Air Quality Index (Pollution Standards Index).1 While ozone in the atmosphere shields the Earth from the ultraviolet rays of the sun, at lower levels it hurts vegetation and humans, especially the elderly, the young, and those with cardiovascular issues, and it “can trigger asthma attacks and increase our susceptibility to infection”.2
What are the Dangers of Smog?
Pollutants create many health problems, including asthma, difficulty breathing, increasing lung infections, and eye irritation. It does not just affect animals and people; smog damages the forests and crops as well, by inhibiting the growth of plants.3 Smog can also cause property damage. Anyone engaging in outdoor activity, whether manual labor or jogging, will breathe harder and faster, and this exposes the lungs to more pollutants. There are a few groups who are most at risk from ozone and other pollution. Active children who spend a lot of time outside may be especially prone to developing asthma and other respiratory problems. Adults who are active outdoors are also at risk. Those with respiratory diseases and asthma are vulnerable and sensitive and will experience problems sooner than others, and at lower exposure levels. There are also people with “unusual susceptibility to ozone”. Elderly people are often told to stay inside on days with heavy smog. Like any other adults, they are more at risk if they have respiratory ailments or if they are very active or are sensitive to ozone.4
Reducing Pollution in the US
In the US, in 1990, the Clean Air Act was created to reduce pollution such as nitrogen oxides, ozone and smog particulates. While there are national standards, the states need to make sure the standards are met. Areas that do not meet the standards are referred to as “nonattainment areas”. There are 5 classes of nonattainment, which “range from marginal (relatively easy to clean up quickly) to extreme (will take a lot of work and a long time to clean up)”. Most of the cleaning up is focused on motor vehicles. Other requirements might include changing gasoline composition, alternative fuels, banning wood burning and charcoal barbecues when pollution is high, encouraging carpooling, public transportation, and restricting traffic, imposing “smog fees”, or purchasing and destroying “super-dirty” vehicles.5 EPA regulations on cars and power plants have reduced urban smog significantly over the past 25 years. Heat waves worsen the situation, so other changes will be implemented in the long-term, such as controlling the emissions from farm equipment and diesel trucks, and regulating trains and marine vessels. It is urban areas, and “valleys penned in by mountain ranges” that have the most problems with the pollution.6
At the end of 2015, China “sparked more red alerts” due to “hazardous smog”. In ten cities, people were warned to stay indoors, restrict the use of vehicles, and schools were closed. Many other cities in China were heavily polluted, as well. Red alert was the highest level of pollution, which means that there were hazardous levels (above 300) for three days in a row. Some neighboring regions continued to have PM2.5 pollutant levels “surpassing 300 mg per cubic metre” even as Beijing’s air pollution levels were said to be “slowly improving”.7 It was not just China that was affected by the pollution. Taiwan also “recorded a high level of PM2.5 air particles”.8 Taiwan’s EPA said that strong winds from northwest brought those pollutants into northern and western Taiwan.9 Real-time pollution be tracked globally with Air Quality Index Visual Map and the AirVisual app.10, 11 In the US, air quality can be monitored with AirNow. Each site has color coding that shows the level of air health, such as green (good), yellow (moderate), orange (unhealthy for certain groups), red (unhealthy), magenta (very unhealthy), and burgundy (hazardous). Hazardous is an emergency condition for everyone. The US map also includes notifications about cities with “action days” issued.12 It is important to get pollution levels under control. Two recent studies have shown that China’s smog is affecting fetal health. Women who were pregnant during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were found to have babies with a higher birth weight than those born before or after. This was due to the fact that during the Olympics the “city reduced car traffic and halted many industrial plants”. Pollution may affect the placenta’s function and contribute to more preterm deliveries.13 Until the smog is resolved, there are many useful masks available for citizens to wear for protection.14 Over time, smog can contribute to cancer risk. In China, besides masks, it is becoming more common for people to stay inside, use air purifiers, and to purchase “laser eggs” to monitor “AQI levels in the immediate vicinity.” The country is working on coal-emission standards.15 The highest recorded level of smog was “1,986 micrograms per cubic meter in Palangkaraya, Indonesia” in 2015.16
1, 3, 5 http://www.deq.louisiana.gov/portal/PROGRAMS/OzoneActionProgram/OzoneFactsandExperiments/WhatisSmog.aspx
Learn more about environmental toxins and health.