Why pollution is worse in winter
It is shocking to learn that ambient air pollution and household air pollution is responsible for 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). One would like to think that the very air we need to breathe to survive isn’t going to be the thing that kills us.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, air pollution is the presence or introduction into the air of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects. The air we breathe is made up of a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, and inert gases. Air pollution occurs as soon as foreign particles enter the mix, from either burning fossil fuels, emissions released by industries or even by using toxic household products.
So, why does pollution appear to be worse in winter and how can we be better equipped to handle the challenges it brings?
- The Burning of Fossil Fuels: One of the obvious reasons for the increase in pollution in winter is our demand for energy. During the winter, we use more electricity and gas to warm up our homes and cook our food. Earth.org cites the number one contributor to air pollution as the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) to generate energy. Energy that we use to generate electricity or power transportation. South Africa's fossil fuel CO2 emissions are derived almost 90% from the use of coal.
- Industrial Emissions: The processes that industries use to produce their products result in enormous amounts of sulphur dioxide, volatile organic solvents, and particulate materials, such as metal dust, being released into the air. This isn’t specific to winter but occurs year-round.
Chemical and synthetic products use: Using toxic products in your home called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as personal care products, aerosol sprays, cleaners and room deodorisers, can cause high levels of indoor air pollution, which can affect your health. Indoor air pollution is worse in winter because we don’t open windows as frequently to circulate the air in our homes, which contributes to poor indoor air quality. This is not good news if you suffer from asthma or respiratory problems.
There are numerous sources of indoor air pollution, including the burning of coal, wood and paraffin, tobacco smoke, asbestos products, pesticides and household cleaning products.
- Atmospheric conditions: As temperatures drop in winter, atmospheric pressure or air pressure increases. This occurs due to cold air being denser and heavier, and therefore moving slower. As we learnt in school, hot air rises and cold air sinks. Thus, this slow-moving cold air sinks and blankets or traps in air pollution. Keeping it low to the earth’s surface, which we then end up breathing in at a higher rate than we would during summer.
High pressure systems often mean dry weather with sunshine and little or no clouds, indicating fair weather without rain. Rain helps to clear the air of pollution. During winter months most places have lower precipitation levels thus leaving the air contaminated with pollution. If however, your region experiences a wet winter and a dry summer, such as in Cape Town, you may have the reverse experience.
- Veld fires: Low levels of rainfall also contribute to dry grasslands. Veld fires are a big contributor to air pollution and reduce the quality of air that people breathe. They release vast amounts of carbon emissions, smog and pollutants into the air. According to an article published on the Daily Maverick, more than two million hectares of land in the Free State, North West, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape were burnt by veld fires last year. There were a number of reasons for the fires, but the drought conditions, dry vegetation, and strong winds had created ideal conditions for runaway fires.
If you find yourself in a situation where the air quality in your area drops drastically, it is recommended that you stay indoors, avoid exercising outside, and try to limit your emissions as much as possible. You can also wear a face mask to help protect you against some of the health risks of exposure to air pollution. Alternatively, if you suffer from respiratory problems and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving any time soon, you may choose to head to a higher altitude until it clears.
You can check the real-time air quality index (AQI) in your area. At the time of writing this, Johannesburg was considered moderate but with a high PM2.5 concentration. These are the tiny particles formed because of the burning of fuel and the chemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere.
What can we do to cut down on pollution?
- Cut down on vehicle emissions. You can try to reduce your vehicle emissions by using public transport where possible, walking or using a bicycle, car-pooling, working remotely, or at least cutting back on how often you drive your car.
- Conserve energy. Use electricity consciously by turning off lights and appliances when they’re not in use. It will not only save you money but will lower your carbon footprint.
- Recycle and buy recycled products. A large amount of waste can be recycled and reused. By recycling, you use less of our finite natural resources - less water and energy.
- Consume less. Buy quality and sustainable products so that you don’t need to replace them often.
Chat to us at Solenco if you find that the air pollution around your home is affecting your quality of life. Our air purifiers come with a multi filtration system that includes a pre filter, an H13 Medical Grade HEPA filter, a carbon filter, an anti viral filter (proven that it can remove the Covid 19 virus) and a UV-C light with PCO. They can remove pollutants from traffic and other PM2.5 sources and reduce the chances of health issues caused by indoor pollutants, which can trigger respiratory infections.