How are heatwaves impacting air quality?

Aug 1, 2022 | News

As the UK reports its highest-ever temperature of just over 40 degrees Celsius during Tuesday 19th July, we take a look at what impact the heatwave is having on our air quality.

Do heat waves worsen air quality?

In a word – Yes. Heat in the air acts as a lid to air pollution, weighing it down and trapping it in our living environments. In doing so, air quality is reduced as pollutants in our air cannot disperse and the concentrations increase. Previous heat waves have had serious health consequences, one example being when nearly 70,000 people died during the heatwave experienced in Europe in 2003.

EMSOL’s Data Scientist, Dr Debasree Banerjee adds that, “a high and moderate ozone air pollution warning from Imperial College London was observed on the 18th and 19th of July respectively. Ground-level ozone production requires ozone precursor chemicals such as oxides of nitrogen and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which primarily come from vehicle emissions. These chemicals in the presence of radiation from the sun convert to ozone.” Exposure to ground-level ozone can cause a variety of health problems such as chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion.  It can lead to worse conditions like bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the lining of the lungs and its repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

Are heat waves a result of global warming?

A heat wave is defined as, “a prolonged period of abnormally hot weather” and we should note that unusually hot days are considered to be a natural part of day-to-day variation in weather. However, as greenhouse gas emissions increase they ‘blanket’ the earth, trapping the sun’s heat in the process and as the Earth’s climate warms, hotter-than-usual days are becoming more common, along with what we know as heat waves.

Heat waves, air pollution and our health

As heat waves increase in frequency and air pollution lingers during heatwaves, how will that affect our health? The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued recommended safety levels for pollutants in our air and disturbingly,  99% of the global population is breathing air that does not meet those standards today. This is true on a typical weather day, so during a heat wave when concentrations of pollutants in our air increases, so does the risk to our health. Maria Neira, Director for public and environmental health at WHO warns, “Climate change is affecting our health in many ways, not only by heat waves which are having direct consequences but also other areas of essential healthcare, such as rising levels of disease”.

What can we do about the risk to our health and environment?

Proactive pollution control is key to addressing the air pollution problem in our world. We need to take instant action and ensure air pollution levels are maintained below recommended safety limits rather than taking action when the levels are already too high. But how do we go about that? Maria Neira, Director for public and environmental health at WHO notes that,

“The best solution to this will be, again, being very ambitious on tackling the causes of this global warming.”

and that means reducing emissions at their sources. EMSOL is working with organisations to do exactly that, identifying root causes of air pollution, recording and alerting in real-time when levels exceed limits and providing insight to reduce and mitigate emissions. With nearly 38,000 deaths in the UK every year attributed to poor air quality the organisations that own the problem must take immediate action and EMSOL is committed to being part of the air pollution solution.

What next?

It is feared that with the ongoing heat waves in the weeks ahead more of our elderly and ‘at risk’ population will die as a result of the poor air quality and challenges to our health system. For the most part, COVID taught us how to protect our communities from one serious health hazard – this should also be the case for poor air quality and we must do more to educate our population about its risks and take instant action to protect our planet.

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