Ilona Amos: Air pollution could be much worse than we thought

A shale gas fracking rig is set up by workers. (Picture: Getty)
A shale gas fracking rig is set up by workers. (Picture: Getty)
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Breathing toxic air has been named as one of the leading factors behind premature death across the globe, with around 6.5 million people dying before their time each year as a consequence.

This is largely as a result of increased mortalities from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections – all caused or exacerbated by exposure to poisonous fumes.

From the smog hanging over cities to smoke and chemicals inside homes, air pollution poses a major danger to human health and the environment. There are a number of contributory factors that we know about – and probably many others that have yet to be identified.

Studies have demonstrated the hazards of poisonous particles in vehicle exhaust gases, while a report released just last week suggests household cleaning products, paints, glues and cosmetic items such as perfume are also major sources which have been largely ignored.

READ MORE: Polluted streets ‘still poisoning lungs’ in Scotland

Now new international research has found levels of ethane and propane leaking into the atmosphere during production and distribution of natural gas – including fracking – around the world have been under-estimated. A team of scientists from the UK, Norway and the US says the quantity of escaping emissions could be as much as three times higher than previously thought. This is bad news, particularly in large cities, as the gases can react with traffic fumes to form ozone.

The ozone layer high in the atmosphere is crucial for absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which could otherwise damage life on earth. But low-level, or tropospheric, ozone is not welcome. The greenhouse gas is a key component in smog and is known to raise the risk of death when breathed in. Ground-level ozone can trigger breathing problems by making the airways constrict, while fine airborne particles are linked to heart and lung disease. Along with particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide found in traffic fumes, it is one of the three major causes of pollution-related deaths.

READ MORE: Air pollution in decline across Edinburgh

As a result of their findings, the researchers are now calling for further investigation into emissions of methane, given off along with ethane and propane from natural gas sources. They fear that emissions of the potent climate-warming gas could also be much higher than current estimates suggest, which could have catastrophic impacts for the planet and jeopardise efforts to curb global temperature rises to internationally agreed limits.

With around 40,000 premature deaths attributed to air pollution each year in the UK, including 2,500 in Scotland alone, it’s time to clean up our atmosphere. And fast.

We have 38 official pollution zones in towns and cities across Scotland where air quality breaches safety standards. In addition to damaging our lungs, air pollution has recently been linked with dementia, diabetes and obesity. And it is especially harmful to the most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and people with other health conditions.

The Scottish Government’s plan to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 is certainly a move in the right direction. And I believe ministers have done the right thing banning fracking here, even if petrochemicals giant Ineos thinks otherwise. How long must we hold our breath waiting for what is our most fundamental human right – clean air?