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What effect does air pollution have on our health?

According to a 2018 report by WHO, nine out of every ten people in the world breathe contaminated air. The UN agency estimates that seven million people die each year as a result of poor air quality. And in Brazil? The same study cites 50,000 deaths per year, though some researchers believe the number could be higher. According to a study by pathologist Paulo Saldiva, professor at the University of São Paulo’s School of Medicine, residents of São Paulo have an average lifespan around one and a half years shorter as a result of the city’s pollution. For example, living in the capital of São Paulo state is equivalent to smoking four cigarettes a day.

Deaths are largely due to gas inhalation and exposure to fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, and may lead to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

At the end of May, a trucker strike helped illustrate just how much transport affects air quality. According to Saldiva, there was a 50% drop in air pollution levels in São Paulo on the seventh day of the strike. “It was an exceptionally rare occasion and we are certainly going to study the consequences in terms of public health. Perhaps this quantitative evidence can be used as an argument for the creation of public policies”, he said.

According to a comparison of daily data on atmospheric pollution measured by the São Paulo State Environmental Company – Cetesb–, pollution indexes rose with the interruption of road space rationing, followed by a sharp drop following the fuel shortage and reduced numbers of cars and buses on roads.

A person that decides to drive to work instead of catching the bus contributes to 45 times more carbon dioxide (the gas responsible for global warming) and 30 times the carbon monoxide (a toxic and pollutant gas) being released into the atmosphere. Not to mention a one and half times increase in nitrogen oxide and triple the particle material, which is harmful to the lungs and causes disease. The calculation was based on factors from the Ministry of the Environment’s National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory for Road Vehicles considering city buses with an average capacity of 80 people and 1.5 people for cars.

There is a clear adverse effect on the health of the Brazilian population. Estimates show that living in a city with polluted air increases the risk of heart attack by 75% when compared to cities with clean air. There is also evidence that the impact of pollution is disproportional: the effects are more serious among the low income population. Health problems are also felt throughout the economy, due to premature deaths and absenteeism related to illness linked to air pollution concentrations. In São Paulo alone, air pollution-related deaths and illness generate an economic cost of up to USD 208 million per year.

Recently, the Globo News program Cidades e Soluções (Cities and Solutions) accompanied a resident of São Paulo on a 4-hour journey using different modes of transport. Clinical measurements such as blood pressure, heart rate and the concentration of exhaled carbon monoxide were monitored in conjunction with the city’s environmental parameters (such as temperature, humidity, noise and the concentration of particle pollution). A team of researchers from the University of São Paulo and the ISS oversaw the experiment.

During the course, the highest average concentration of PM2.5 was noted in a vehicle with open windows (169.4 µg/m3), which also presented the highest variability due to the influence of outside factors (tunnels, proximity of avenues and avoiding routes with heavy traffic). This average is 580% higher than WHO’s maximum limit and equal to almost 6 hours and 41 minutes of exposure to the maximum WHO threshold, which is 25 µg for PM2.5. When walking, both in closed and open environments, the average concentrations of PM2.5 were extremely close (122.3 and 130.0 µg/m3). Walking for an hour with exposure to the average concentration obtained is equal to 5 hours and 5 minutes of exposure at the maximum WHO limit.

We have previously written about how current legislature falls short of effectively protecting Brazilians. A proposal to review air quality standards in Brazil, which are lax compared to those of the World Health Organization, has gained ground with the Technical Board of Legal Affairs of the National Environment Council and the resolution will soon come into effect, despite opposition from researchers and organizations arguing in favor of the health and quality of life of the Brazilian population.

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