Take a deep breath, but not too deep. A recent report published in The Lancet estimates 9 million people died prematurely from pollution in 2015, accounting for 16% of all deaths globally, 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. The rich-world is not spared.
The biggest killer, air pollution, accounted for 6.5 million of the total. And, unlike other forms of pollution, which affect mainly poor and middle-income countries, air pollution has a significant impact on health in rich countries like Switzerland.
Air pollution comes in two forms: indoor (household air) and outdoor (ambient air) pollution. Household air pollution, typically caused by burning fuel inside, something more widespread in poor regions, accounted for around 40% of air-related early deaths. Outdoor ambient air pollution, the kind of air pollution common in the rich world, was responsible for the other 60%, cutting short around 4 million lives globally.
World Bank data shows that in Switzerland mean annual exposure to PM2.5 particulates is 14 – PM2.5 particulate matter refers to particles with a diameter of 2.5 micron metres, a width equivalent to one hundredth of a human hair. The same report shows that 96% of Swiss residents are exposed to air pollution levels above the WHO guideline limits of an annual mean exposure to PM2.5 particulate matter of 10 μg/m3 and a 20 μg/m3 annual limit for PM10 particulate matter.
According to an RTS article in March 2014, levels of PM10 rose to nearly 80 μg/m3 in Geneva, with concentrations going as high as 300 μg/m3 in some towns. And while Swiss federal rules fix a maximum PM10 particulate concentration of 50 µg/m³, no action is taken until levels reach 100 μg/m3, reported RTS.
Key sources of air pollution include electricity-generating plants, chemical manufacturing facilities and vehicles. Coal, used to generate around 40% of electricity globally, is the world’s most polluting fossil fuel. And while according to World Bank Data, Switzerland produces no electricity from coal, neighbouring Germany generated 44% of its power from this dirty fuel in 2015.
So next time you see a Tesla flying down a German autobahn, it is safe to assume that it’s at least partly coal-powered – it is also possible that the driver might have enough solar panels at home to cleanly power his machine.
Neighbours Italy (17%), Austria (8%) and France (2%) produced far less electricity with coal than Germany in 2015.
The Swiss government does not publish PM2.5 particulate concentrations, focusing instead on PM10 particulates. Today, the levels are 10μg/m3 or below across most of the country. Two glaring exceptions are Lugano (75μg/m3) and Magadino-Cadenazzo (73μg/m3) in Ticino, where the levels well beyond the WHO’s 50 μg/m3 24-hour mean healthy limit.
Historical maps of pollution concentrations clearly show Switzerland’s air-pollution hotspots. Parts of Ticino are terrible. Switzerland’s main urban areas have regularly exceeded annual government limits for NO2 and PM10 since 2000. Alpine valleys are also pollution prone.
In addition to air pollution, the report points to another concern: chemical pollution, described as a great and growing global problem. The 5,000 most used products have become so widely dispersed in the environment that nearly every human is exposed. Fewer than half of these high-production volume chemicals have undergone any testing for safety or toxicity, says the study. History provides numerous examples of the folly of this approach. The widespread use of lead additives, asbestos, DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, are some examples cited in the report.
When air pollution is high, health professionals advise avoiding strenuous outdoor exercise. Click here to see what the air is like where you are today.
Swiss Federal Office for the Environment – pollution levels (in English)
The Lancet report on pollution (in English)