Photo:© GOLFX/

Editorial: Fighting for the right to clean air

By: Ebba Malmqvist

“The dose makes the poison” is a basic principle in toxicology. Even drinking water can be lethal if consumed in excessive amounts. For air pollution, the levels considered harmful are often relatively small, measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. However, exposure is constant as we continuously breathe, and these small ammounts accumulate, leading to diseases and ultimately deaths.

A related concept in public health protection is the “population attributable fraction”, which essentially measures how many people are exposed to a particular risk. A substance can be extremely toxic, but if only a few individals in a country are exposed, it is not considered a significant public health problem. In contrast air pollution affects a large number of people, especially those living in urban areas where pollution levels are elevated. Escaping ambient air pollution is nearly impossible in urban areas, as everyone needs to breathe. Consequently, with large urban populations globally, the population attributed fraction for air pollution becomes substansial.
Air pollution has now become the leading cause of disease globally, according to the recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report and stand for 8% of all causes of diseases. At AirClim, we are tirelessly working to ensure that the air we breathe is as clean as possible. We collaborate with scientists, doctors, patient organizations, mothers, and environmental groups in this endeavor. Opposing clean air are those who argue that the right to pollute outweighs the right to breathe clean air. This ongoing battle pits the freedom to pollute versus fundamental right to inhale without filling your lungs with toxins.

Air quality standards have been improved in recent months to better align with scientific recommendations, in the EU, Taiwan, and the USA. The EU’s annual limit values (yet to be formally accepted) for PM2.5 will be reduced from 25 to 10 µg/m3. In the USA, the corresponding annual limit value will be reduced from 12 µg/m3 to 9 µg/m3 and in Taiwan from 15 µg/m3 to 12 µg/m3. While these changes are all improvements, they still fall short of the World Health Organization guideline value of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5.

The quest for cleaner air has also reached the African continent. Countries that lacked air quality monitors just a few years ago are now introducing air quality legislation. For instance, Uganda is now setting a ban on the burning of waste and the most polluting cars. Ethiopia is leading the way globally by becoming the first country in the world to ban the import of fossil fuel cars.

Many African cities have suffered from high- and middle-income countries exporting old polluting cars instead of having a holistic approach with scrapping schemes for outdated, dirty techniques. It is encouraging to see Ethiopia not only banning these imports but also taking a bold step further by prohibiting the import of all fossil fuel cars. The rationale is clear: it is economically wasteful to import fossil fuels when locally produced electricity can be used.

As Arundhati Roy eloquently said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
There is still a long way to go before we all can breathe without worrying about breathing toxins, but we remain hopeful that new air quality standards will spread globally. Today we celebrate the prospect of cleaner air on the horizon.


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