My opinion

The importance of the air

Min Bae 2017. 1. 25. 21:06

We live largely ignoring the most precious thing for our life. 

Is it money? or repute? fame? social status? job position? house? car? ...


If we got an accident and the airway (respiratory tract) got suffocated, our brain begins to enter the state of brain death in just less than 10 minutes. 

The movie, Gravity, starred by George Clooney, shows well the preciousness of the air we ignore while living on earth.

Indeed my thesis subject is also related to the importance of fresh air (or a doctor who emphasised that), but I had long been concerned with the importance of the air for our body, particularly in terms of disease, and that is one of the reasons why I was always fascinated by the wind. 

I remember I read in some medical book that the main cause of cancer might be the insufficient supply of the oxygen to the organs. 

And while doing my research, I've found that it was not a novel idea at all, and that until the 19th century one of the most basic agents in hygiene in Western medicine had been the fresh air. 

Despite such an important status of the fresh air in hygiene, in British history, hygienic principles were considered important exclusively for the upper classes, who could practically afford to buy well ventilated houses and time to exercise in the fresh air, and most importantly the chance to consult physicians who monitor and prescribe for their clients' hygiene. 

But in the late nineteenth century, as scientific medicine began to replace the hygienic principles of the Greek medical tradition and medicine began to lose its holistic features adopting reductionist approaches, the air became largely neglected in the efforts for health.

Even though today's public health projects consume a large amount of resources of our society, the resources are usually spent to tackle the risks from pathological germs or from our bad life styles. 

In the case of the air, however, until now too little attention has been paid, and not many people realise the importance of fresh air. 

Despite the deadly warning on cigarette packs, every one knows that the gas from our cars is actually more harmful to our body.

If individual smoking is so bad as to be the main target of social campaigns for causing the lung cancer, then why do the collective behaviours of car driving and the continuous permissions of new coal-fired power plants by the government not become a target of social campaigns? I am not a smoker, but I think that is obviously one of the most strange social phenomena. If we feel irritated by the smoke of smokers, and feel compelled to let the sphere of public health play the dominant role in solving the problem in a way that interferes with the matter of individual happiness, then why do we not apply the same principle to the collective form of destructive behaviours that we all are involved in. It is easy to drive a part of society towards a guilty feeling or self-reflection, but it seems not as easy for the whole society to view itself with the same approach. 

A large study on 2013 published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, estimated the number of premature deaths in China in 2013 related to the deadly fine particulate matter called PM 2.5 exposure at 916,000, out of the population of 1.4 billion. The researchers said that outdoor air pollution was the fifth leading cause of premature deaths in China, behind high blood pressure, smoking, high consumption of sodium and low consumption of fruit. Household air pollution was the sixth leading cause. 

Of course, I don't fully agree with such a reductionist approach quite common in the Lancet to that matter, but at least the study showed how serious the problem is. If you still cannot figure out how serious the problem is, then compare it with the Oxy scandal in South Korea. The humidifier disinfectant of the British company, Reckitt Benckiser, was claimed to have caused lung damage to hundreds of South Koreans with about a hundred deaths.

Today, we spend much more money, time and energy for health, but actually we are neglecting the most fundamental and most important element for our health, the air. 

Moreover, like the disparity between the poor and the rich in British history, the benefit of the fresh air is seen again to belong exclusively to the citizens of a small number of advanced countries, as the data below show. 

Even worse, unlike water which can be purchased as a form of bottles, the air gives few option to avoid the harmful effects to the citizens whose country is suffering from the polluted air situation. 

The first data set is from a Chinese social enterprise project, World Air Quality Index, and the second data set is from an American non-profit independent orgnanisation, Berkeley Earth. Both show the state of air pollution this morning. The third set is based on the WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database of the last year, 2016. 

1. World Air Quality Index (China)

2. Berkeley Earth (the US)

3. WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database (the UN)