Wherever there are people, there is air pollution. The more densely people are packed into an area, the greater the pollution. While air pollution has been linked to areas like Mexico City, it was an intimate part of London due to coal-burning stoves in the 1800s, and of Pittsburgh during the height of the steel industry in the 1930s. The air pollution was so thick that there was virtually no difference between noon and midnight.
In recent years, Beijing has been the world capital of air pollution, although during the major forest fires in 2018, San Francisco had the worst air quality on the planet.
Air pollution matters. According to the World Health Organization —
Worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for:
- 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
- 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
- 24% of all deaths from stroke
- 25% of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
- 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (1)
The impacts may be understated. There is a growing literature about the relationship between air pollution and cancer.(2) And it’s known that three are cancer hot spots in proximity to paper mills in Maine which have been known to release highly toxic substances into both air and groundwater (e.g., chlorine).(3)
Science is now working to clean the air that we breathe — if you live in Europe, China or parts of Asia or South America, that is.
Airlabs is a Danish company co-founded by a professor at the University of Copenhagen. It builds small towers that use ionization to clean 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour. The first of these towers was installed in Beijing in 2016, and resulted in a 55% reduction in air pollution in the area served by the tower, according to the Chinese Ministry of the Environment. The towers are 21 meters (approximately 63 feet) in height. Additional towers have been installed in Krakow and Rotterdam, and there are contracts for towers in India, Mexico and Colombia. A picture of the tower is below.
Source: The Lancet Respiratory Medicine
The towers were designed by artist Daan Roosegaarde.
“Locals in China call it the clean-air temple”, said Roosegaard. “The city had become a machine that was hurting them. We wanted to build a machine that will make people more healthy. We tried to use traditional elements but project them towards the future; that is the way to get people to accept these kind of designs”. (4)
Due to their large population, China has been proactive in taking steps to improve the health of its citizens — first with programs to battle obesity and then with efforts to clean the environment. There’s no altruism in doing this; China has estimated the financial impact of inaction and doesn’t want to pay that cost. For them to have the first tower is truly no surprise.
- Talha Khan Burki, “The innovations cleaning our air,” The Lancet, 9 January 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(19)30002-5/fulltext