Is the air where you and your students live safe to breathe? If it is, you’re in a small minority. Approximately 99% of people worldwide breathe air that does not meet the World Health Organization (WHO)’s air quality guidelines. As is often the case with harmful environmental impacts, these dangers disproportionately affect poorer countries. Pollution is also concentrated within low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods primarily inhabited by people of color.
StC - Want to discuss the unequal effects of air pollution with your class? This video from ACE is a great starting point.
The impacts of polluted air are devastating. The WHO estimates that seven million people die prematurely due to air pollution each year, making it a leading cause of death worldwide.
These deaths are preventable. Most air pollution is caused by human activity, so people have the power to greatly improve air quality.
There are many things you can do to help protect our air— and as a teacher, there are many ways you can get your students engaged with the issue! We’ll get into some ideas for that in a bit. But before you get into how to prevent pollution, you may want to cover the basics of air pollution with your class.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution is the presence of contaminants in the air that are harmful to the environment and to human health. (At the end of this article, we’ve listed some common pollutants you can discuss with your students.)
What are the effects of air pollution?
As we have touched on above, air pollution can cause many serious —sometimes fatal— health issues in humans. The effects on the heart and lungs in particular can be deadly.
Air pollution can exacerbate heart disease, increasing the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, arrhythmia, and strokes. This is a very prescient issue in the US, where heart disease is the number-one cause of death.
Breathing in pollutants can also lead to lung cancer, the cancer that causes the most deaths in the US. Pollution can also cause serious respiratory diseases like emphysema.
What are some ways to reduce air pollution that my students can try?
There are many opportunities to teach your students how to reduce air pollution. Here are just a few ways they can get involved!
- Trees are great at reducing air pollutants by absorbing gaseous contaminants from the air. If your school has access to a space where you can grow trees, planting and caring for them can make for a wonderful class activity!
- Your students can encourage their classmates to get around without cars by organizing a walk and roll to school day. It’s fun— and a great way for the students passionate about environmental issues to get to know each other.
- Setting up a no-idle zone in your school’s drop off or pick up area is another way to reduce unnecessary pollution from cars at school.
- Some of the causes of air pollution call for structural change. For instance, how can you sufficiently reduce car emissions in a sprawling city or suburb without adequate public transportation? Helping students to get involved in environmental activism can be a great way to make an impact. You can encourage students to attend a protest, start an environmental club at school, or connect with people organizing in their community around pollution and other environmental issues.
StC - Want to do a deep dive into air quality with your class? We have an interdisciplinary unit plan on the topic!
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Human beings have an immense impact on the quality of the air— and that air quality, in turn, can seriously affect our own health and the health of our environments. Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to protect the air we breathe. Many are actions that young people can take. As a teacher, you can help empower your students to get involved so we can all breathe easier.
Looking for teaching resources on how to reduce air pollution, as well as other environmental and climate issues? Check out the wealth of educational materials on our website!
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* Common Air Pollutants
- Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is fatal in high concentrations. Outdoors, carbon monoxide in the air is unlikely to reach deadly levels, but it can cause health problems for people with heart conditions. Carbon monoxide gets released into the air outside by vehicles and other equipment that burns fossil fuel.
- Ozone high up in our atmosphere protects organisms from ultraviolet sun rays. Ground-level ozone, however, presents many health risks to people and ecosystems. In particular, it can cause and exacerbate respiratory issues. Ozone forms when reactions occur in the sunlight between chemicals emitted by cars, power plants, chemical plants, refineries, or industrial boilers.
- Nitrogen dioxide is a gas released when fuel is burnt, particularly by vehicles, power plants, and off-road equipment. It can cause and exacerbate respiratory diseases and infections. It can also react with other chemicals to create particulate matter.
- Sulfur dioxide gets released when people burn sulfur or a substance containing sulfur. This mainly occurs when industrial facilities, including power plants, burn fossil fuels. Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory issues. It can also react with other chemicals to create particulate matter.
- Particulate matter refers to a wide range of different substances, including dirt, dust, smoke, and soot. It’s essentially what it sounds like— particles in the air. It usually comes from the reactions of other pollutants. However, things like construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, fires, and smokestacks can also directly emit particulate matter. Particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing serious health problems.
- Lead is a metal with many severe health impacts, including harming children’s neurological development. Lead gets released into the air during processes including ore and metal processing, the burning of airplane fuel, garbage incineration, and battery manufacturing.