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Dumbo only flies in clean skies

By the end of 2016, more than 150 factories will be forced to close in China to improve the air quality around Shanghai Disneyland. Air pollution causes nearly one in five deaths in China, but it has taken a $5.5 billion theme park for local government to take action.

Last year, the UN World Health Organisation announced that air pollution is the biggest environmental problem, causing 7 million premature deaths around the world every year. In a letter to Nature, Johannes Lelieveld and colleagues give an even scarier prediction – that deaths caused by air pollution could double by the year 2050 due to urbanization. The main reason is small aerosol particles, which we constantly inhale, and which can cause heart and lung disease.

Given these startling health impacts, why are we not more actively demanding clean air?

In the 19th century, doctors would prescribe their wealthy patients fresh mountain air as a cure for their ailments. We have come a long way from the days of early industrialization and the air quality problem is often regarded as resolved in Europe, as described in a previous Future Earth blog post by Megan Melamed. The levels are so low, that we usually cannot see or smell the pollution anymore.

We all are still confronted with high particle concentrations in our day-to-day life. Have you thought about how many particles you breathe in while driving through a road tunnel or when burning candles in your house?

It is good to keep in mind that the choices we make affect how much pollution we are exposed to: where we live, how we get to work, how we cook our food, and where we spend our holidays. A lot of people do not have a choice in these matters. Being forced to cook on open fire or spend time in a traffic jam is decreasing their quality of life on many levels.

It goes without saying that we need more knowledge on the complex processes behind air quality, better emission control and cleaner technologies; something scientists, politicians and engineers should work together for. But I believe that a real change happens only when more people are aware of the impacts of fine particles on their health and start to take air pollution into account in their everyday choices. We cannot see the bacteria causing caries either, but most people still brush their teeth twice a day!

Ilona Riipinen from Stockhom University calls for a change of perspective in solving environmental issues. According to her, health can be the key motivator for people to start treating the planet – our home – better. Most people want to keep their home clean and safe and comfortable to live in.

It is somehow sad that we need Mickey Mouse and Snow White to join a choir calling for the blue skies before action is taken. But maybe this is a step towards both individuals and companies recognizing the added value from clean air and demanding it. Clean air in a bottle cannot be the only solution.