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Top 5 shocking incidents caused by poor air quality... and why it can affect you

These incidents have caused serious hazard, even death, to people worldwide... And here's how you can safeguard your health against air pollution at home.

By Wong Hua | Mar 14, 2024 | 11:11 am GMT +8

We often take breathing fresh air for granted, and oftentimes where to eat dinner is more important than ensuring our breathing air is fresh and clean. However, throughout history, our environment has shown us the strong correlation between air quality and our well-being.

The incidents below are clear examples of why we should pay attention to the air quality of our living environment. Let's learn about them, along with the best way to combat air pollution to ensure good health for you and your family in your own home.

The 5 shocking poor air quality incidents

The Great Smog of London (1952)

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Bridge barely visible in the smog. Source: Public Domain.

One of the most infamous air pollution incidents was the Great Smog of London in December 1952. A dense cloud of smog, resulting from burning of coal for heat, descended over the city and remained for five days. It was so thick that visibility dropped to near-zero levels. An estimated 4,000-12,000 people died as a direct result, and it prompted major changes in environmental policies and regulations in the UK.

The Air Pollution Crisis in New Delhi, India (2019)

New Delhi on Friday. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

In Nov. 2019, New Delhi, India experienced a severe air quality crisis. The air quality index (AQI) in certain parts of the city rose above 999, the maximum level that most air quality monitors can measure. The situation was declared a public health emergency, with schools being closed and construction work halted. The pollution was caused by various factors including vehicle emissions, industrial pollution, and agricultural burning.

The “Airpocalypse” in Beijing (2013)

Beijing has become infamous for its smog, as this picture from Tiananmen Square in January this year shows. Feng Li/Getty Images

In Jan. 2013, a dense cloud of smog covered Beijing and much of northern China for weeks. The AQI reached hazardous levels, exceeding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) safe daily level by 40 times at its peak. The event led to widespread concerns over health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly, and spurred government actions to combat air pollution.

Wildfires in California (2020)

The August Complex Fire burned near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest on Sept. 16, 2020. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

Massive wildfires in California during 2020 caused extremely poor air quality throughout the West Coast of the United States. The smoke from the fires led to AQI readings well above 300, considered “Hazardous,” in many areas. The event was a stark reminder of the effects of climate change, as increased temperatures and dry conditions can make wildfires more likely and more intense.

The Smog Event of Donora (1948)

The Donora Smog of 1948 began on October 27. Bettmann / Contributor

The industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, experienced a severe smog event in late October 1948, when a temperature inversion trapped emissions from the town’s zinc and steel plants. Over the course of five days, 20 people died and over half of the town’s 14,000 residents experienced severe respiratory and cardiovascular problems. The event is considered one of the worst air pollution disasters in US history and led to increased awareness about the deadly effects of industrial pollution.

What causes poor air quality?

According to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at the Allergy & Asthma Network, poor air quality can be caused by any airborne "irritant" - a particle or pollutant in the air that is harmful to a person to breathe in. These harmful airborne particles can come from both outdoor and indoor sources.

Outdoors, common causes of poor air quality include vehicles or industrial facilities emissions, rising ozone levels, natural disasters like wild fires, dust storms, and weather conditions like temperature inversions.

Indoors, common air pollutants include dust mites, pet dander, mold spores, pollen, particulate matter (PM) 2.5, tobacco smoke, cooking gases, smelly odours, VOCs, bacteria, viruses, and more.

How can poor air quality hurt health?

These harmful airborne particles, whether coming from indoor or outdoor, when inhaled, can irritate our airways and cause inflammation, and lead to various negative health effects such as:

Respiratory issues

These particles can trigger allergy symptoms like sneezing, sinus, blocked or runny nose, sore throat, or itchy watery eyes, and worsen pre-existing conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Cardiovascular problems

Particulate matter (PM2.5) - tiny particles less than 2.5 μm in diameter, can get inhaled deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing inflammation and oxidative stress, leading to cardiovascular problems like heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

Decreased lung function

Continuous exposure to these harmful particles can lead to a decline in lung function, which can result in reduced lung capacity and impaired respiratory function over time.

Child developmental issues

Exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy can have negative effects on fetal development, increasing the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues in children.

Increased risk of cancer

Certain air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are classified as carcinogens and linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly lung cancer.

How to protect yourself from poor outdoor air quality?

There is not much we can do when it comes to controlling outdoor air quality as it depends on various objective factors as mentioned. However, below are some useful tips to help with poor outdoor air quality:

⦿ Check Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast: Check it before heading outdoors. Many weather websites such as nea.gov.sg provide real-time air quality updates. Avoid going outside when the AQI is high (150+).

⦿ Wear a good face mask: If the AQI is high or you have respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, consider wearing high-quality N95 or N99 face masks to protect yourself against harmful air pollutants.

⦿ Limit strenuous outdoor activities: Reduce the intensity and duration of outdoor exercise or physical activity when outdoor air quality is poor to minimize the amount of harmful air pollutants you inhale.

⦿ Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated since proper hydration can help your body flush out toxins and maintain good overall health, especially during times of increased air pollution.

Poor indoor air quality - a more serious problem

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollution levels are often 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels. In some cases, it goes up to 100 times that of outdoor levels.

This is alarming when studies also show that we spend around 80 to 90% of our time indoors, which means indoor air quality plays a much more crucial role in determining our overall health and wellbeing.

Indoor air pollution levels are typically 2-5 times higher than outdoor levels and can quickly become 100 times worse than outdoor levels.

This makes it highly critical to find effective ways to reduce your exposure to indoor air pollution in your home. Try some of these quick tips which are proven to be simple and naturals ways to help you do this:

Ventilate your home properly

Open doors and windows to disperse indoor air pollutants and let new air circulate inside. However, if outdoor pollution reaches unhealthy levels, keep them closed until the outdoor air quality improves.

Clean and declutter

Dusting, mopping floors, washing bedding, etc. helps removes excess pollutants on surfaces while decluttering ensures fewer surfaces for pollutants to build up and allows for easy and regular cleaning.

Remove odours and fumes

Use natural odour absorbers such as baking soda and activated charcoal to remove pet odours, cooking smells, chemical fumes, and VOCs that can be harmful to your health.

Keep mold in check

Clean mold infested areas with mold-killing solutions. Keep humidity level in the optimal range of 30-50%. Maintain proper moisture in your home by fixing leakages and damp areas to prevent mold.

Add air-purifying plants

Plants like Snake Plant, Spider Plant, and Boston Fern can be great visually aesthetics for your home while helping filter out some airborne toxins. In addition, most of these friendly plants are really easy to care and maintain.

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Captures 99.97% of all indoor air pollutants

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Here are some studies that show an air purifier with advanced filtration systems like the Sterra Moon can significantly improve indoor air quality and provide relief for all indoor allergy symptoms:

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Changing the air filter is designed to be easy as changing batteries in a remote control. Unlike other air filters that last for a month, Sterra Moon air filters can last up to 6 months.

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