Mapping Pollution

Breathe it in. Is your air clean, or is it polluted? What might shock you is the real-time visualisations of the pollution in your area. In recent years a new wave of real-time air pollution models have been created, showing pollution hotspots and revealing what we are really breathing in.

Why is pollution such a problem though? The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 92% of the world’s population live in places where air quality is below guideline levels, and that outdoor air pollution causes the premature deaths of around 3 million people a year.

earth pollution
An image of pollution over Africa, Europe and parts of Asia from the AirVisual pollution map.

AirVisual debued the 3D image of the globe, showing air pollution and wind speeds in real time. Anybody can check their local area to see the levels of pollution. Data has been scraped using government air-quality monitoring stations in countries such as the United States, China, Japan and South Korea alongside AirVisual’s own measuring sites. What they produced shocked the world. Many areas across the globe were found to have far higher pollution levels than what is recommended.

“It is hard to see air pollution in your house, so we wanted to make it very visual,” said the company’s founder, Yann Boquillod. “Once you see the 3-D Earth, it is almost shocking. Our Earth is really suffering from the pollution we have created.”

“We want people to understand — global warming is not coming out of nowhere. It is coming out of emissions,” Boquillod said. “We want to show how bad it is, so people have access to data — first, so they can protect themselves, and then so they can push governments to make a change.”

The greatest concern is about a form of pollution called PM2.5. PM2.5  is the atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres. It’s hard to grasp how small that is, but it’s roughly 3% the diameter of a human hair.  These particles are so small that they can travel through the lungs and into the bloodstream and contribute to heart disease and severe asthma. Furthermore, it was recently found that exposure to PM2.5 significantly increased levels of stress hormones in a test group alongside a barrage of other physical effects including higher blood pressure, inflammation and insulin resistance.

People may have been shocked looking at the levels of pollution of the world, but has anything improved? That’s hard to say.

One of the biggest takeaways is the shocking lack of monitoring in large parts of the world. That means that it’s hard to fully understand the scale of the problem and therefore, what the solutions should be. Below is a brief outline of the current state of affairs.

  • WHO estimates that nine in ten people worldwide are breathing highly polluted air. In the European Union, eight out of ten cities with data exceed WHO’s recommended guidelines.
  • People in Asia and Africa face the biggest problems. More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths happen there, but cities in the Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean also have air pollution levels that are beyond what the WHO considers healthy.
  • Since 2016, more than 1000 additional cities have been added to WHO’s database which shows that more countries are measuring and taking action to reduce air pollution than ever before.

Some countries are tackling the air pollution problem head-on. For example, Paris banned old diesel cars during the 2017/18 winter and now labels cars according to the pollution that they emit. In Bangalore, India 6,000 buses have been converted to be able to use compressed natural gas alongside initiatives to decrease car usage. So far, says the city, it has reduced traffic pollution by about 20% in a few years and one in four people who used to travel by car now use public transport. Curibita, Brazil has the lowest cost bus systems in the world. Nearly 70% of the city goes to work by public transport.

Mapping air pollution is showing the world where it needs to improve and, most importantly, helping us to protect ourselves from harmful pollutants.

“No doubt that air pollution represents today not only the biggest environmental risk for health, but I will clearly say that this is a major, major challenge for public health at the moment and probably one of the biggest ones we are contemplating,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.


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