Tiny particles, which are harmful anthropogenic pollutants, come from factory stacks, car exhaust pipes, and cruise liner engines. These particles settle in the small vessels of our lungs when we breathe in air and make us sick. Air pollution has been known for many years to be harmful to human health. For instance, American researchers have discovered that living next to a big road increases the risk of premature death by 20%. In recent years, many countries, particularly Western countries, have been working on solutions to reduce air pollution. The implementation of particle filters and the phasing out of the most polluting energy sources has helped. Denmark has reduced fine particle emissions by 48% since 1990. However, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research, even more people will die prematurely from particulate air pollution in the future, despite this progress. Ulas Im, in collaboration with NASA, performed model calculations that show this outcome.

Aging Population in Asia

Ulas Im, from the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University, and NASA have developed a global model for air pollution that includes climate change, particle emission reduction measures, and changes in population composition. The model depicts a bleak future, particularly for countries in Asia. The study shows that even if Asian countries reduce air pollution significantly, the mortality rate will still be high. This is because their populations are aging, and individuals become more vulnerable to pollution with age. Ulas Im and NASA came together in this project because both institutions have unique technology that, if combined, offer entirely new possibilities and perspectives. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York has one of the most advanced climate models globally, and Aarhus University has one of the best computer models for how air pollution affects human health. By creating a hybrid of the two models and running the new model through Aarhus University’s supercomputer, Ulas Im and his partners from NASA could create three scenarios for how air pollution will affect human health in the future.

The three scenarios include one in which most of the world continues to regulate and try to limit air pollution, one in which we do even more than we do today, and finally, one in which we do less. However, even in the most optimistic of the three scenarios, the result turned out to be bleak, especially for Asia. The model includes only the most harmful anthropogenic pollutants, such as fine particles and ozone, which are harmful to our lungs. The fine particles penetrate deep into the lungs and cause damage because they make it more difficult to breathe, leading to severe consequences such as asthma, blood clots, hardening of the arteries, or even cancer. Ozone has the same effect, causing chest pain and breathing difficulties.

In the most optimistic of Ulas Im’s scenarios, we manage to do a lot more to reduce air pollution at the global level. Still, the scenario still predicts an annual death rate of four million people. This is because air pollution is a slow killer, and the seeds of future illness and death have already been planted in many people. Therefore, the numbers will not be reduced, even if we cut our emissions of harmful particles drastically. Despite the reduction efforts, air pollution will continue to affect human health in the future.

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