Toxic Mash: Air, Water, Food and Climate Change
The etymology of the phrase smog is of comparatively recent vintage. It was coined in 1905 by H.A. Des Voeux, a health official, to define ‘atmospheric conditions’ in British towns.
The New York Skyline this week emerged as an unwitting exhibit of the global reality of climate change and the haze over inaction. Smoke from wildfires in Canada, covering over 10 million acres, billowed and belched toxic air enveloping the city in a shroud of smog. The city found itself on the list of the world’s worst in air quality. As New Yorkers struggled to cope with an unusual condition, a time-lapse video shared by the National Weather Service on Twitter went viral across time zones triggering schadenfreude among those for whom poor air quality is an inescapable circumstance.
Toxic air is a reality visible and palpable across the globe. A 2022 report from the World Health Organisation shows that across 6000 cities in 117 countries monitoring air quality, “the air in 17 per cent of the cities in high-income countries falls below WHO Air Quality Guidelines.” The state of poorer countries is worse. In low and middle-income countries, air quality in less than 1 per cent of the cities complies with WHO thresholds – a fact millions in India and elsewhere in the developing world will testify to. It is manifest in the loss of over 6.5 million lives every year worldwide.
The etymology of the phrase smog is of comparatively recent vintage. It was coined in 1905 by H.A. Des Voeux, a health official, to define ‘atmospheric conditions’ in British towns. Ostensibly pollution then was a local phenomenon. The phrase climate change or climatic change came into usage only after the 1970s. Globally around 4 million sq km of vegetation burns every year -- in Australia, Amazon, Canada, Russia and the United States -- which emit gases that worsen air quality across national borders and global warming.
The callous exploitation of natural resources underlines the context that has created a mash-up of toxins – in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we ingest. Consider the state of water. Data published by UN Water show that over 2 billion people, or roughly a quarter of the world population, lack “safely managed” drinking water and 2.3 billion live in water-stressed countries.
Groundwater accounts for a major share of human consumption and is threatened by contamination by fertilisers, pesticides, industrial and mining wastes, petroleum products and solid waste landfills. A Lancet report reveals that water pollution was responsible for 1.4 million premature deaths in 2019. The World Bank has observed that shallow groundwater in every populated region should be considered at risk of pollution.
A useful metric to understand the impact of ‘consume and dispose culture’ is the magnitude of toxic trash generated by the rampant use of plastics. Of the 7 billion tons of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled. The UNEP estimates that the world produces around 400 million tonnes of plastics per year. Roughly around 10 million tonnes end up in the ocean, accounting for 80 per cent of all marine pollution. It is well established that microplastics enter the food chain and accumulate in the food we eat, such as fish and shellfish. And it is not just seafood that is impacted by air and water pollution. A 2019 study, based on commonly consumed food items by US residents, estimates that an average person consumes between 74,000 and 121,000 microplastic particles.
There is no disputing that pollution, politics and policies are exacerbating global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2023 Synthesis Report, reveals that “Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.” Human-caused climate change is increasing the incidence and frequency of extreme events such as droughts, heavy rainfalls and heatwaves.
Earlier this year, an analysis by NASA showed that “Earth’s average surface temperature in 2022 effectively tied with 2015 as the fifth warmest on record.” Rising temperatures are throwing up new challenges. A study by Mark C. Prosser, Paul D. Williams, Graeme J. Marlton and R. Giles Harrison states that Clear Air Turbulence “is projected to intensify in response to future climate change.”
This has ominous portents for aircraft safety and millions of travellers. And the projections for global temperature are only worsening. The World Meteorological Organisation has observed, “There is a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record.”
The planet is confronted with a confluence of consequences, an exponential rise in pollution, accelerated loss of biodiversity and intensified climate change. It is useful to remember that since 1905, when the phrase smog entered the lexicon, the world population has grown from 1.6 billion to 8 billion and the world GDP from US $ 3.4 trillion to over US $ 105 trillion. The pressure of population and the need for resources is showing up on planet Earth. The clichéd truth is that there is no Planet B! The visuals of the New York skyline are yet another reminder for introspection and action.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India