International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

In December 1952, an unprecedented and dense fog covered London, U.K. for four days. Visibility was limited to just a few meters at best, and public transportation, except for the subway, came to a halt. Ambulance service was suspended, and people had to travel to the hospital on their own. As the smoke permeated indoors, even indoor venues had difficulty with visibility, and concerts and movies were canceled. Although London had experienced dense fog and smog since the 13th century, this event marked the most severe air pollution disaster in British history and earned the infamous name the “Great Smog of London.” It is estimated that 4,000 deaths were reported in the city over four days, followed by 8,000 related deaths since then, bringing the total death toll caused by smog to around 12,000. This became a catalyst that changed public perceptions about air quality and its impact on health.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have emitted tremendous amounts of chemicals and gases into the atmosphere while producing and using energy. Numerous laws have been enacted for clean air as they suffered severe air pollution caused by dense populations such as the Great Smog of London and the LA smog, but the efforts were not enough. Air pollution is one of the most serious environmental problems on the earth. According to the World Health Organization [WHO], air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe each year. The WHO has estimated that, in the absence of aggressive intervention, the number of premature deaths resulting from ambient air pollution will increase by more than 50 percent by 2050. Nine out of ten human beings currently breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, with those living in low and middle-income countries suffering the most.

Air Pollution and Climate Change

Air pollution not only contributes to climate change but is also exacerbated by it.

Emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane, and climate pollutants such as ground-level ozone are also forms of air pollution. They are also responsible for a significant proportion of air pollution-related deaths and impacts on crops and food security. Smog, another type of air pollution, chemically reacts with ultraviolet rays in hot weather, leading to the formation of photochemical smog (known as Los Angeles smog). This phenomenon may be exacerbated by global warming.

Climate change also increases the production of allergenic air pollutants. Moisture, which is caused by extreme weather and increased floods, causes mold to grow, and mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks or an allergic response. Some can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale. Increase in carbon dioxide also extends the pollen production season, leading plants to produce more pollen.
The most recent global report, “State of Global Air,” which summarizes the latest scientific understanding of global air pollution, sharply emphasizes that if we do not take action to reduce carbon pollution, the climate crisis risks significantly exacerbating air pollution.

Effect of Air Pollution on Health

Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and damage the lungs, especially those of children, senior citizens, and people who work or exercise outdoors. It is even worse for people who have asthma or allergies; these extra pollutants can intensify their symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. The tiniest airborne particles in soot, whether gaseous or solid, are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death.

A number of air pollutants pose severe health risks and can sometimes be fatal even in small amounts. Some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. Most of them are emitted during chemical combustion. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, present in small amounts in the air, affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems as well as reproductive functions. Mercury attacks the central nervous system. In large amounts, lead can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even minimal exposure can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn.

In addition, long-term exposure to air pollution damages the lungs and makes people susceptible to infectious diseases. Studies on the mortality rates of COVID-19, which has recently hit the world, have shown that individuals in low-income brackets, residing in areas with high levels of air pollution, experienced higher death rates. Facilities emitting pollutants are located near their settlements, and they are exposed to harmful substances when burning low-quality fuel in homes with poor ventilation.

International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies 2023: Together for Clean Air

The International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies was proposed by the government of the Republic of Korea at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. In December 2019, the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating September 7 every year as the “International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies.” It was established to raise awareness of air pollution at a time when many countries are suffering from fine dust. The day aims to strengthen international cooperation and initiatives for reducing pollution and promoting clean air.

By the resolution, the international community has celebrated the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies on September 7 every year since 2020. The United Nations Environment Program [UNEP], a specialized organization for the environment, is in charge of this day. In addition, UN member states, UN agencies, international and regional organizations, and civil society promote international cooperation to improve air quality.

The fourth annual International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies will focus on the theme: “Together for Clean Air.” The theme aims to highlight the urgent need for stronger partnerships, increased investment, and shared responsibility for overcoming air pollution. It also underscores the direct impact of air pollution on human and ecosystem health and the shared responsibility to protect the atmosphere and ensure healthy air for everyone.

The transboundary nature of air pollution calls for global partnerships beyond national boundaries to tackle the problem. Collaboration with the UN member states, development organizations, international or regional organizations, private sectors, and civil society is crucial to reducing pollution and improving air quality. Everyone has a part to play in cleaning the air and protecting our health, and everyone can benefit from it: a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, including clean air, is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights.

Recognizing that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, society bears the high costs of air pollution owing to the negative impacts on the economy, work productivity, health care costs, and tourism. Therefore, it is time for all countries to understand that there is an economic rationale for investing in air pollution control and that reducing air pollutants has co-benefits for the entire world, and to take action to solve air pollution.