Reducing Health Risks and Assessing Major Urban Sources of Air Pollution

By Andrew Poitras

Airborne pollutants are the root of many serious health concerns, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthmatic and allergic symptoms, and respiratory infections which threaten at-risk populations such as children, older adults, and immunocompromised individuals4. In extreme cases, the inhalation of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, and nickel has highly carcinogenic effects and cause cytotoxicity when exposure is prolonged5. Risk for neurotoxicity increases in areas proximal to pollution from unaddressed or superfund sites5.

Some of the most significant metropolitan contributors to atmospheric pollution include industrial emissions, diesel exhaust, coal combustion, and re-suspension of dust particulates1. According to the World Health Organization, “Transport is responsible for around 25 to 70% of urban outdoor air pollution, depending on the city11. Brauer et al confirm that sources of harmful pollutants represent an extreme hazard to human and environmental health and cause many varieties of afflictions, particularly among senior and young children2. The four main classifications of air pollutant sources accounting for passive emission are listed publicly on the National Park service’s website, and are partitioned in the percentages by which they contribute to the atmosphere3.

Airborne pollutants can be wind-swept, spanning large distances and deposited in concentrated areas via turbulent wind patterns. An urban area downwind of a factory receives a greater quantity of particulates, even when its distance from the source may be considerable3 – pollutants which circulate in the troposphere, or the ‘’mixing layer” of the atmosphere, can disperse pollutants to distances as great as 5 kilometers relative to ambient wind conditions10.

Malueg et al suggest that an effective way to reduce atmospheric pollution is to moderate pollution sources through restrictions on manufacturing companies and to encourage eco-friendly alternatives wherever possible6. Restrictions do have limitations, and there will exist some proportion of undocumented, illegal, even natural sources of pollution outflow which escape legal limitations and ramifications, and these sources must be also accounted for to better address the issues associated7.

Under environmental initiatives and policies such as The Clean Air Act, measures to monitor and maintain air quality standards have been developed to promote sustainable and efficient alternatives to remove airborne pollutants8. Green spaces in metropolitan areas, for example, represent a strong initiative to conserve biodiversity and cultivate select species which cleanse certain types of air pollution. Studies show that in areas with green initiatives, mortality rates experience a significant decline9. Environmental scientists Mitchell & Popham claim, “Mortality differed significantly across the groups of exposure to green space for mortality from all causes.” Studies such as these demonstrate the relationship between environmental sustainability and public health, which stands as an important national priority9.

1 Yele Sun, Guoshun Zhuang, Ying Wang, Lihui Han, Jinghua Guo, Mo Dan, Wenjie Zhang, Zifa Wang, Zhengping Hao, The air-borne particulate pollution in Beijing—concentration, composition, distribution and sources, Atmospheric Environment, Volume 38, Issue 35, 2004, Pages 5991-6004, ISSN 1352-2310,

2 Brauer, M., Hoek, G., Van Vliet, P., Meliefste, K., Fischer, P. H., Wijga, A., … & Heinrich, J. (2002). Air pollution from traffic and the development of respiratory infections and asthmatic and allergic symptoms in children. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine166(8), 1092-1098.

3 National Parks Service. (2018) Where Does Air Pollution Come From? Air Resources Division. Accessed January 17, 2018

4 Kilburn, K. H. (1999). Neurotoxicity from Airborne Chemicals Around a Superfund Site. ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH -NEW YORK-, (2), 92

5 Choi Yeowool, Park Kihong, Kim Injeong, Kim Sang D. (2018). Environmental Geochemistry and Health. Feb, Vol. 40 Issue 1, p271, 12 p.

6 Malueg, D. A. (1989). Emission credit trading and the incentive to adopt new pollution abatement technology. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 16(1), 52-57.

7 Güth, W., & Pethig, R. (1992). Illegal Pollution and Monitoring of Unknown Quality—A Signaling Game Approach—. In Conflicts and cooperation in managing environmental resources (pp. 275-332). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

8 Buzbee, W. W. (2000). Sprawl’s political-economy and the case for a metropolitan green space initiative. The Urban Lawyer, 367-390.

9 Mitchell, R., & Popham, F. (2008). Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet372(9650), 1655-1660.

10 Schroeder, W. H., & Lane, D. A. (1988). The fate of toxic airborne pollutants. Environmental Science & Technology, 22(3), 240-246.

11 World Health Organization. (2018) Public health policy for outdoor air quality. Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health (PHE).

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