WHO: Air pollution is getting worse and risking the health of millions

Air pollution across the world is getting worse, is missing targets for safe levels and is putting the lives and health of millions at risk – figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show.

A reliance on fossil fuels, the use of private cars and buildings which use energy inefficiently can all be blamed for the deterioration of outdoor air quality.

In announcing new figures on the state of air quality in cities, WHO has said half of the urban population monitored for air pollution are exposed to levels 2.5 times higher than recommended.

It follows the announcement that in 2012 3.7m people under the age of 60 died due to air pollution, and combined indoor and outdoor air pollution is one of the biggest threats to public health that exists.

Dr Carlos Dora from the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health warned that cities need to improve the levels of pollution being generated.

“We cannot buy clean air in a bottle, but cities can adopt measures that will clean the air and save the lives of their people,” he said.

Recent figures revealed by WHO show that the most polluted areas of the United States include Fresno, San Bernardindo and Los Angeles, all in California.

Air pollution is monitored on two difference scales, which relate to the diameter of particles in the air.

Fine particles (known as PM2.5) are produced by all types of combustion including the use of cars, power plants, wood burning and some industrial processes.

Coarse dust particles (PM10) are created from crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred by vehicles travelling on roads.

Internationally, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bahrain have the highest mean for coarse particles. Parkistan and Afrhanistan also feature in the top three countries for fine particles, but are also joined by Qatar.

China, which has received much negative press for its high smoggy cities, does not feature in the top ten of either fine or coarse particles – however the WHO data for the country is from 2010.

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Despite the overall bad news from WHO, it does say that some countries are improving the levels of air pollution in their cities.

This is being achieved by a greater use of green energy sources and also optimising mass public transport, rather than private vehicles.

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said there is a long way to go but it is possible to combat air pollution.

She said: “Effective policies and strategies are well understood, but they need to be implemented at sufficient scale.

“Cities such as Copenhagen and Bogotà, for example, have improved air quality by promoting ‘active transport’ and prioritizing dedicated networks of urban public transport, walking and cycling.”

The WHO database can be found here.


Featured image courtesy of Lei Han via Flickr/Creative Commons Licence 


Danger of SETI: Humanity is Not Prepared for Extraterrestrial Contact

Attempts to make contact with alien civilisations should be reconsidered because humanity lacks the adequate knowledge and awareness of the universe and our place in it, according to clinical neuropsychologist Professor Gabriel G de la Torre.

In a study that considered the knowledge and viewpoints of 116 university students at institutions in the USA, Italy and Spain, de la Torre found that, despite major progress in science and technology, the majority of people lack enough knowledge of the cosmos to make an informed decision about whether contacting alien civilisations is a good idea.

De la Torre, who is based at the University of Cádiz, Spain, initiated the study in response to plans by the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to begin sending messages from Earth telling anyone out there who can listen where our planet is.

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SETI has been going since the 70s, when it was founded with financing from NASA, and is focused on processing space tracking data from Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory using the computers of thousands of volunteers from around the world.

Previously its work has been passive, but plans to send out messages from earth, known as Active SETI, could potentially result in alien civilisations with technology far superior to our own knowing where we live.

For many, this seems like a good idea. Such aliens would surely want to meet us (assuming their technology allowed them to) and share their remarkable innovations, enriching humanity and helping further our access to the stars.

However, fears that such a meeting could go horribly for the human race have been repeatedly voiced by astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking.

Speaking to The Times in 2010, Hawking said: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

“I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

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For de la Torre, this risk makes for a significant ethical concern. “Can such a decision be taken on behalf of the whole planet?” he asked. “What would happen if it was successful and ‘someone’ received our signal? Are we prepared for this type of contact?”

In order to answer this question, he crafted a survey that would assess respondents’ religious beliefs, general awareness, astronomy knowledge, thoughts on likelihood of alien contact and general perception of humanity.

This was to determine how much each respondent was basing thoughts about extraterrestrial visitors on rational knowledge and how much was based on morality.

“Regarding our relation with a possible intelligent extraterrestrial life, we should not rely on moral reference points of thought, since they are heavily influenced by religion,” explained de la Torre. “Why should some more intelligent beings be ‘good’?”

He believes that decisions to contact potential alien civilisations should involve all of humanity, however, too many of the respondents showed a lack of astronomical knowledge or used religion to form viewpoints on the matter for humanity to be able to make an informed choice, leading de la Torre to call for “a new Galileo to lead this journey”.

“This pilot study demonstrates that the knowledge of the general public of a certain education level about the cosmos and our place within it is still poor,” said de la Torre. “Therefore, a cosmic awareness must be further promoted – where our mind is increasingly conscious of the global reality that surrounds us – using the best tool available to us: education,”