A body can live several weeks without food; days without water; but mere minutes without air. What are we doing to this essential foundation for life?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people worldwide are killed by air pollution every year. Moreover, 90% of children under the age of 15—that’s 1.8 billion kids—“breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk,” adds the organization.
We hear a lot about carbon dioxide (CO2). For sure, this greenhouse gas is a crucial threat to climate stability. But, there’s much more to air pollution around the world than CO2.
To understand air quality worldwide, the WHO tracks both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) pollution.
Household pollution comes from burning wood, and coal for heating and cooking. Millions around the world burn coal or wood indoors every day. Ambient pollution, on the other hand, is produced from a wide range of mostly industrial sources. Those include: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground-level ozone,
sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, and lead.
All are toxic; and they aggregate into droplets around carbon and dirt to form particulate matter (PM).
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that this matter is sorted into coarse and fine PM.
Coarse PM are particles larger than 10 micrograms (PM10 ), while fine particles (PM2.5) range from 2.5 to 10 micrograms in size.
It’s the fine ones that do the most damage because they are so small, they can easily be absorbed into lung tissue.
The World’s Most Toxic Cities
In 2019, CBS News listed the 50 worst cities in the world for ambient air pollution, most from a mix of vehicular and industrial sources.
China topped the list with a whopping 29 cities. India comes second with 15, and the dubious honor of having the top seven most polluted.
Pollution from oil production earned Al-Ahmadi, Kuwait, and Yanbu, Saudi Arabia a spot on the list, too.
The rest are a smattering in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Uganda. Cameroon makes the list, thanks, in part, to massive deforestation, and fire, which has led to changing weather patterns.
Then there’s Mongolia, home of the most toxic city in the world—at least for half the year.
The World Air Quality Index lists PM2.5 concentrations around the capital, Ulaanbaatar, from “very unhealthy” to “hazardous,” depending on the season.
NPR reports that Mongolia is gaining wealth by exploiting its vast mineral deposits of coal, copper, and gold.
These industries, plus emissions from vehicles and the city’s coal-fired power plants, contribute to poor air quality year-round, earning the “very unhealthy” rating. The problem is exacerbated in the winter months.
Ulaanbaatar is the “coldest capital city on earth,” according to NPR. “Temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night.” As a result, most of the city’s 1.4 million people burn raw coal, a major source of black carbon, for heat.
While no city in the U.S. made it onto the list of top 50 most polluted, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that national totals are headed in the wrong direction.
Back in 1979, the American Journal of Epidemiology found, “no evidence for negative health effects from particulate matter levels in the U.S.”
Less than 30 years later, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported, “inhalation of fine particles is causally associated with premature death at concentrations near those experienced by most Americans on a daily basis.” And cities, wherever they are in the world, are heat sinks. That’s, in part, because buildings and roads concentrate and reflect enormous amounts of heat back into the atmosphere.
Working Towards Solutions
Some countries are more actively pursuing solutions than others, with hopeful results, according to the WHO.
In just two years, the Air Pollution Mitigation Program in India has lowered household pollution by providing free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to 37
million poor women, supporting the switch to clean household energy.
Authorities in Hangzhou, China started the country’s very first public bike-sharing scheme in 2008 with the intention of reducing traffic congestion. The program proved popular, and as a result, drastically improved the city’s air quality.
“Hangzhou is a great example of how cities can introduce initiatives like bike sharing, to encourage people to get out of their cars and reduce air pollution,” says Rob de Jong, Head of the United Nations Environment’s (UNEP) Air Quality and Mobility Unit.
In 2013, China introduced their Air Pollution Action Plan to reduce PM2.5 levels. As a result, Beijing has drastically curbed the use of coal, closing its coal-fired power stations, and banning the burning of coal for heat.
That same year, Beijing was ranked by the WHO as the “40th worst city for PM2.5.”
Just five years later in 2018, it “ranked 187th place.”
Mongolia is also taking measures to improve air quality. In March, the government banned raw coal, and put an alternative product on the market made from semi-coke, a byproduct of coal. The fuel-efficient briquettes burn longer and are cleaner. But they are more expensive, and the largely poor residents are reluctant to switch.
The Roofing Rainbow
Some cities, mainly in wealthier countries, are introducing architectural solutions that lead the way toward a greener, cooler and more esthetically-pleasing future.
Green roofs go back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, constructed around 500 BCE. Now, green roofs are growing in popularity.
Toronto, Canada is riding this wave. In 2009, the city passed the Green Roofs Bylaw, which offers incentives for conversion.
Organizations like Green Roofs for Healthy Cities are also helping to lead the green roof movement. The organization does so through its online publication, Living Architecture Monitor, and by hosting regional events, including the annual Gry to Green Conference, and the national, multi-day CitiesAlive Conference.
It’s not just roofs—but green spaces—that are becoming more prevalent. Take the High Line in New York City, which opened in 2009, for instance.
The High Line is a public park built on an old elevated rail line in Manhattan’s West Side. This, “hybrid public space” brings together, “nature, art, and design.”
Sustainable practices incorporate: native, drought-tolerant, and low-maintenance plants; composting all garden waste on-site; and using rainwater.
In the podcast, 99 Percent Invisible, Kurt Kohlstedt sheds light on the topic of green architecture, and the differences between an architect’s renderings, and the finished structures.
Many times, buildings aren’t as sustainable as intended, he explains. “The energy needed to hoist plantings onto large buildings and structural supports needed for the weight of piping and water significantly offset sustainability gains.”
For example, China’s Nanjing Green Towers, which is set to be Asia’s first “vertical forest project,” will feature over 3,000 trees, shrubs and vines. It’s projected to “absorb 25 tons of CO2 per year,” says Kohlstedt. “This sounds impressive in the abstract, but it amounts to the output of around a half-dozen typical cars [or six homes per year].”
But green is not the only sustainable color—even for roofs.
How about red? Locales around the world, such as Prague and cities in Sweden, Croatia, and Portugal have preferred picturesque red roofs to boost civic pride and tourism. Researchers at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently discovered that these roofs boost sustainable benefits, too.
In a 2016 article from the Berkeley Lab, titled, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: Fluorescent Ruby Red Roofs Stay as Cool as White, Julie Chao writes that the lab’s scientists have, “determined that certain dark pigments can stay just as cool as white by using fluorescence.”
More specifically, the researchers found that, when exposed to sunlight, surfaces with ruby red paint stay as cool as white materials.
Upon further study, scientists discovered certain fluorescing blues can stay just as cool, even when mixed with other colors, including green, and black.
The results have opened the door to a rainbow of colors for roofs, and any other object subjected to prolonged sun exposure, “including vehicles, ships, storage tanks, and PVC piping,” the lab finds.
Farming With Nature
One of the most exciting developments in farming avoids breaking up the ground almost entirely. That’s important because much carbon and lots of dust are released into the air from traditional farming methods. The Sustainable Conservation organization notes, “conventional farming techniques cause significant soil disturbance, effectively increasing dust pollution and diesel emissions […], a major source of air pollution.”
Conservation tillage farming is low-impact farming. With this method, farmers avoid deeply turning the soil, and plant new crops right on top of the old stubble, according to the University of California Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI).
Any naturally occurring plot of land contains a rich bio-diverse culture of plants, fungi, worms, insects, and bacteria that sustains its own health. All or most of that sustainability is destroyed season-by-season through conventional tilling techniques. That’s why farmers end up “addicted” to using chemical fertilizers and pest control products.
Conservation tillage retains the biodiversity and the natural ability of the soil to care for itself.
This leads to all kinds of air quality benefits. For starters, it keeps precious topsoil on the ground instead of flying off in the wind, and into our lungs (recall the Dustbowl of the 1930s). Plus, farmers spend less time driving big machines across their fields. That means burning less fuel, and in turn, decreasing CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, according to ASI research.
How does cannabis fit into all this? We’ve heard the horror stories of irresponsible growers trashing public land, siphoning precious water, and dumping toxic waste. Even legitimate growers confront the fact that large-scale agriculture has a lousy carbon footprint.
As hemp becomes a common crop again, growers could lead the way to cleaner air by using and promoting sustainable conservation tillage. Better soil, human health and reduced erosion; what’s not to like?
Directly related to air pollution, Fundación CANNA—a non-profit in Spain that conducts scientific research—promotes the use of hemp seed oil to offset lung damage from particulate matter. They claim, “omega 3 fatty acids […] significantly lowered inflammation in the lungs […] before or during exposure to PM particles.“
Recall that the smaller PM particles settle in lung tissue, causing both physical damage from sharp-edged grit, and chemical damage from toxic compounds. Both of these processes lead to inflammation, and difficulty breathing as the lungs try to protect tissue from these ravages.
As the Fundación CANNA puts it, cannabis can help protect against pollution on multiple levels, “If we look at the sustainable point of view the choice is evident. [Hemp is] a sustainable crop that enriches the soils, sequesters carbon, and provides high quality omega 3 [fatty acids].”
Hemp agriculture can also take the lead in promoting the philosophy of using the whole plant.
The plant can be grown for its fiber and stalks, or its flowers and seeds. Overall, the whole hemp plant has more than 25,000 uses, and counting.
Clothing made from hemp is more than a cultural fashion statement; it has its environmental advantages too. That’s because hempware provides consumers an alternative to fast fashion, one of the most toxic industries on earth. It requires less land, water and chemicals to produce than common textiles like cotton, for example.
According to a 2018 report from The Guardian, “[…] textile production produced more greenhouse gases than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
Yup, time to pull out your hemp wear, folks. And encourage your friends to buy some too.
Other innovative uses of the whole plant are on the upswing. Take hempcrete, for example.
Concrete is the world’s first choice in building materials, both for good and for ill. It’s highly durable, and can be made just about anywhere. But, “the world is running out of sand—and there’s a black market for it now,” reports Business Insider.
American Lime Technologies has a potential fix for this problem by championing the use of hemp in their concrete mix. They mix the inner woody core of the hemp plant, “with a lime-based binder.” They suggest it actually cleans the air by simultaneously pulling CO2 from the air and emitting oxygen.
Hemp is currently being used to create solid, sustainable structures at lower costs than wood. One recent project from Cooperation Jackson, a community-based social change organization, is building homes as part of what the organization calls, ”an eco-village full of hemp houses.”
So, where do we go from here? People will always need fuel for cooking and heating. Right now, all around the earth, that means millions of people are sick and dying just trying to breathe.
Fixing such a big problem can seem overwhelming. Waiting on big governments to bail us out is not enough. Looks like everyone is needed. We can each find our own positive niche. Maybe you are excited about green roofs, or opting to bike instead of drive? Perhaps your business can make use of hemp-based products? Or, maybe you’ll buy more hemp-based food or clothing options.
Certainly, cannabis users can remember their history of positive social change, and support ways that the beloved kind green can be part of the true green revolution.
What’s yours to do?
Written by Molly Cate
The article was published in The Emerald Magazine’s EARTH edition.