Last year I did an epic backpacking trip through South America. One of the many incredible cities I visited was Santiago. I took a bus from Argentina, over the Andes, and crossed the land border into Chile. The drive was spectacular, winding through the pristine snowy mountains. In the seat next to me was a great guy from the Dominican Republic—we hit it off and chatted the whole 6 hour drive.
As we entered the city, I commented on how foggy it was. He raised his eyebrows at me, “Girl, that’s not fog”, he said, “that’s smog”. I was sceptical. “No, I’m pretty sure that’s fog?” I said. “Believe me,” he replied, “I lived in Mexico City, I know what smog looks like.”
It turns out he was right. On my first day in the city I went to visit the house of the late famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, built in 1953. The design of the house and its interior are so interesting and beautiful that it has become a landmark tourist attraction. In a room with a huge window overlooking the city, there was a plaque that explained that Neruda had designed this room in such a way that he could look all the way over the city to the Andes in the distance. But unfortunately, the plaque read, the smog is now so bad in Santiago that the Andes are completely obscured.
7 September is the UN International Day of Clean Air with this year’s theme being Together for Clean Air. This means a focus on “the need for stronger partnerships, increased investment and shared responsibility to overcome air pollution”. Especially for those living in cities or areas with relatively good air quality or where the smog is not noticeably terrible, the problem of bad air quality is easy to forget. While Cape Town’s air is by no means safe or clean, the city is not constantly shrouded in very heavy smog and people don’t tend to walk around in masks. For the most part, I can see the Stellenbosch mountains clearly in the distance from the CBD. So when thinking about climate change, the problem of dirty air is not something that comes immediately to mind for me. This is an oversight on my part. Air pollution is one of the greatest issues threatening both our health and the climate.
Health and climate impact
When we talk about “dirty air”, what we mean is air that is polluted with high levels of contaminants like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Breathing polluted air is one of the main causes of preventable death and disease the world over, leading to around 6.5 million premature deaths per year. To put that into perspective, around 7 million people have died from Covid-19 since it broke out in 2019. Breathing in dirty air causes a myriad of adverse health effects. This happens because tiny invisible particles from the polluted air enter our bodies into our lungs and bloodstreams which leads to illnesses such as lung cancer, asthma and respiratory disease. Scarily, around one quarter of heart attacks and one third of deaths from stroke are attributed to the effects of air pollution. This makes sense if you think about it. If you look out over a city and see a brown haze hanging over it or see black exhaust fumes coming out of an old car, how could it be anything short of detrimental to breathe that into your body.
Another major issue with air pollution that is often overlooked but which should be blatantly obvious is that non-human animals are forced to endure many of the same negative health affects from dirty air that humans do. They experience damage to their respiratory systems, neurological problems and skin irritations. Plants aren’t immune either. Air pollution messes with the equilibrium of natural ecosystems which can cause a plethora of problems like disease outbreak, rise in pests, and generally slower growth of plants and crops.
And of course, it is not only the health of the wildlife and plant life living on the planet that is negatively effected, it’s the health of the planet itself. Climate pollutants hang around in the atmosphere, sometimes for days, sometimes for decades, and are directly linked to near-term warming of the planet.
Feeling the effects
Something that really hit home for me as I experienced the smog of Santiago is that a big reason that I have been relatively oblivious to the problem of dirty air is that I am privileged enough to live in a spacious leafy area that is not located in an industrial area or near a steel mill, coal plant or the like. The consequences of air pollution are not equally felt; those on the lower socio-economic rungs feel the worst consequences, as is so often the case with environmental issues.
The majority of deaths linked to air pollution occur in developing countries and the problem is especially acute for those living in informal settlements that are often near rubbish dumps giving off toxic fumes or in industrial areas. Poorer people are also more exposed to indoor air pollution from burning kerosene, charcoal or wood for cooking or heating in spaces with bad ventilation.
Big plants and mines often ignore the responsibility that they have to communities living in the vicinity and do nothing to curb their emissions An illustrative example of this can be found in the Kuils River community in Cape Town. Right next to the suburb is a steel mill which started up again in 2019 after a period of inactivity. When the mill closed down, the old owners left a whole lot of toxic dust that has blown into the air and soil and has caused a number of medical ailments like headaches, nosebleeds and sinus issues. High levels of zinc and arsenic have even been found in soil samples taken from a number of pre-schools in the area. Since the mill has started up again, fumes and smoke are once again smothering the area. This is unacceptable.
What do we do
When looking for the causes and possible solutions for the problem of air pollution, the pandemic gives us some clues. During the global lockdowns, air and road travel were drastically curtailed and the impact on the quality of the air was immediate and striking. In some urban areas, air pollution declined by up to 45% — a remarkable statistic. The central causes for air pollution differ across regions but transportation is a pretty common culprit. Burning diesel and gasoline produces a whole number of scary-sounding air contaminants like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and of course, carbon dioxide—the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gases. Reducing fuel-powered transport will radically improve air quality and the pandemic made this undeniably clear.
In a list of cities with the worst air quality in the world, Santiago ranks 434. That means that there are 433 cities that are even worse than Santiago, a place that the smog is so bad that I refused to believe it wasn’t just fog, a city where you can’t see the mountains on its outskirts. What a tragedy. For our own health, the health of the animals and plants with whom we share the earth, and for the planet itself, we must get our blue skies back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josie is a writer and researcher who wants to do her bit to make the world a little greener. She holds an MA in Philosophy from Stellenbosch University and is currently working on her doctoral proposal.