Air Quality: Why We Need Environmental Professionals
Post Contributed by Ana Suarez, a health advocate raising awareness about the intersection between air quality and public health.
Climate change and carbon emissions are a major threat for our planet today. The impacts of elevated carbon emissions can already be felt around the globe, but there are other types of emissions that are also a cause for concern. Whether released from a tailpipe, smoke stack, construction materials, or another source entirely, these chemicals can often have a severe impact on health. Addressing air quality issues is an important matter for both people and planet, and individuals working in the air quality field can make a huge difference.
When it comes to outdoor air quality, the chemicals of note are nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and the two that are most hazardous: ozone and particulate matter. Ozone, of course, makes up the protective layer in Earth’s atmosphere that shields the planet from ultraviolet radiation. In this instance, ozone is extremely helpful and a necessity for life on Earth. However, ozone can also form on Earth’s surface, and when inhaled, causes acute symptoms or inflames existing respiratory conditions. Specifically this can include asthma attacks, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.
Particulate matter is simply small bits of liquid or solid material that are mixed into the air, often dust, ash, or soot resulting from construction, unpaved roads, industrial emissions, or fires. These particles enter the lungs and bloodstream where they can cause conditions such as an irritation of the lungs, irregular heartbeat, asthma, and even heart attacks.
Clearly reducing these pollutants is of the utmost importance for public health. The World Health Organization estimates 7 million people die prematurely each year due to air pollution. These numbers vary between countries and cities, with the casualties totaling 1.1 million in India alone in 2015. Even developed nations like Spain must confront this issue as cities like Barcelona regularly fail to meet European Union air quality standards, and lose 3,500 lives annually as a result.
Cities around the world are striving to introduce new regulations to help to reduce pollution levels. This can include efforts such as increasing urban tree cover and green space, and reducing automobile traffic.
The complexity of this issue requires the attention of a variety of professions, including air quality scientists to analyze data, and technicians that work directly in the field, monitoring air quality and implementing pollution-reduction strategies.
Air quality also is a significant concern for indoor environments where ventilation is greatly reduced and toxins are able to build up. Many studies have actually concluded that indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air. These pollutants include things like radon, lead dust, and asbestos fibers.
Canada has a particularly long and complex history with asbestos. The mineral was mined throughout the country and used in a wide array of products in the construction and manufacturing industries. However, during the twentieth century, accounts of the negative health impacts of asbestos exposure began to come to light. Canadians that interacted with asbestos were developing deadly cancers and diseases. This led to decreased use of asbestos within the country, yet asbestos mines were not officially closed until 2012 and much of their production was exported to developing nations. This past fall, the Canadian government announced a ban on asbestos that will take effect in 2018, but it’s likely that many citizens will continue to be impacted by these diseases into the future. Asbestos insulation was used in Canada up until the 1990s, which means that this carcinogenic material can still be present in many buildings across the country.
We need the expertise and skills of air quality and environmental professionals in order to address these health concerns. And with 20% of air quality professionals expected to retire in the next decade, this is a great time to enter the field.
Air quality experts can be involved in a number of ways, including monitoring sources of pollution, inspecting buildings, developing new technology, or writing policies that help to maintain high air quality standards. However, the greatest demand in this field is for air quality engineers and management roles. Because air quality does branch out into many other fields there are many ways to get involved and further your career.