April 25, 2018

Air pollution, which results in the degradation of air quality, is an atmospheric phenomenon that has significant impacts on day-to-day routines throughout the world. While many think of air quality in terms of high population areas, it is impacted by geographical and meteorological elements, as well. While many governments have made efforts to improve air quality, it is still a global concern with wide-ranging impacts on transportation, business operations, and personal health. These effects can have direct influences on businesses and their continuity plans. 

How is Air Quality Measured?

Many governments around the world have created air quality indices (AQIs) to communicate air quality levels. These scales – which employ air monitoring networks and forecasting models – reflect current or predicted pollution levels based on particulate concentration in the atmosphere over a specified time frame. Depending on the AQI score, government agencies can provide advice for the general population or enact certain restrictions on transportation and business production. The following chart contains the AQI scale developed by the EPA and used by US government agencies: 

Air Quality Case Studies

Case Study 1: Beijing, China 

It is estimated that more than 1 million people die annually because of complications linked to poor air quality in China. Despite this figure, the country has made some progress in reducing Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) air pollution in recent years. PM2.5 refers to airborne particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller, which is small enough to penetrate deeply into the lungs and lead to health complications. The government has promised to continue reviewing pollution response plans in several of China's largest cities, ensuring proper testing and steps to respond to problematic particulate levels.

One city that is routinely associated with China's poor air quality levels is Beijing. The capital city typically experiences periods of poor air quality during the winter months. During the winter, regional energy demand rises due to home heating requirements. A majority of the demand is met by burning low-quality coal, which has adverse effects on air quality. Authorities have sought to improve air quality by reducing coal burning in northern China, driving up demand for natural gas and leading to shortages.

Several factors that contribute to high pollution levels in Beijing are human-driven, including industrial output, high population levels, and increased emissions from vehicular traffic. In addition to these influences, natural forces play a key role in poor air quality. High-pressure systems during the winter often create a strong temperature inversion – defined as abnormal warming of air temperature with height in the atmosphere. An inversion acts as a lid, trapping pollutants near the surface and raising the AQI. Beijing's geographic location also has a negative impact on air quality. The nearby Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges are a topographic barrier; the mountains reduce air flow, which is required to disperse pollutants.

Case Study 2: Delhi, India 

Another city that often suffers from poor air quality and is the most polluted city in India, is the capital, Delhi. Its problems with air quality arise from several factors, including, in large part, the government's failure to implement meaningful reforms to address pollution. The city was impacted by a severe air quality event in November 2017, when AQI values exceeded 999, well above the 'Hazardous' category. The pollution resulted in airline cancellations, major vehicular accidents due to low visibility, and train delays/cancellations. Area hospitals saw a roughly 20-percent increase in patients during the episode, and authorities declared a public health emergency. 

Air quality generally decreases in Delhi during the winter when meteorological factors such as stagnant air, reduced precipitation, and temperature inversions trap particulate matter in the lower levels of the atmosphere. The city is also vulnerable to biomass burning of cropland at the end of the harvesting season; smoke from the fires often lingers over the metropolitan area. A toxic haze has also been known to cover the capital following widespread firework usage during Diwali celebrations; the correlation has led some courts to ban the sale of fireworks during the festival to reduce pollution levels.

Case Study 3: Mexico City, Mexico

A city that has made significant improvements in its response to poor air quality is Mexico City, Mexico. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the capital was considered one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Since then, the government has implemented several reforms on industrial operations, increased the availability of public transportation, and imposed driving restrictions. Despite this progress, economic growth, a booming population, and a rising number of vehicles in the city has led to sporadic periods of poor air quality. 

Mexico City tends to experience poor air quality during the first few months of the year when precipitation amounts are climatologically low. Geography also plays a significant role in the air quality levels in the capital. Mexico City is situated roughly 2,240 meters (7,349 feet) above sea level; lower oxygen levels at this high altitude cause incomplete fuel combustion, ultimately leading to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Depending on meteorological conditions, much of the pollution generated in the city is prevented from escaping, due to the surrounding mountains. 

Air Quality Health Advice

Many of the most important contributors to poor air quality are nearly ubiquitous in modern society. Because of this, individuals should always pay attention to local air quality forecasts and warnings. This advice is particularly important for individuals with asthma, cardiovascular disease, or other risk factors that make them more sensitive to airborne pollutants.

Poor air quality can lead to several health effects:

  • Coughing
  • Scratchy throat
  • Shortness of breath, especially when exercising or laboring
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Stinging eyes
  • Runny nose

For every level on the AQI, each primary airborne pollutant is associated with different preventative actions that individuals can take to reduce the risk of adverse health effects. In general, though, these actions begin by reducing prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion and progress through total avoidance of physical activity outdoors. Similarly, for each pollutant, sensitive individuals are usually affected at lower levels than healthy individuals.

In addition to the health-related threats, business operations can be particularly impacted by poor air quality. Severe pollution can contribute to air and rail transport delays and cancellations, vehicular restrictions and traffic disruptions, and industrial operational regulations. Businesses in traditionally vulnerable areas with exposure to high levels of pollution should ensure that continuity plans address these potential impediments including the possibility of a reduction in productivity due to higher-than-normal employee absenteeism during periods of poor air quality.