Pollutants of major public health concern, particularly in urban areas, are particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and a range of volatile organic compounds. They cause respiratory and other serious diseases, leading to a significant source of morbidity and mortality, wide impacts and implications. According to the most recent WHO data, almost all the global population (99%) is exposed to air that exceeds WHO guideline limits and contains high levels of pollutant concentration, with the highest exposures occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, air quality is closely linked to the health of the Earth’s climate and ecosystems on a global scale. Many of the drivers of air pollution (such as fossil fuel combustion) are also sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Policies aimed at reducing air pollution, therefore, offer a win-win strategy for both climate and health. They lower the burden of disease caused by air pollution while also contributing to the short- and long-term mitigation of climate change.
THE IMPACTING ISSUES
Air pollution is one of the significant issues of our times, in Europe and globally, as it involves the contamination of indoor and outdoor environments by various chemical, physical, or biological agents that alter the natural characteristics of the atmosphere, creating implications, arising costs and severe events. Common sources of air pollution include household combustion devices, modern products used in homes and workplaces, motor vehicles, industrial facilities, and forest fires. Air pollution affects not only outdoor environments and climate change but also workplaces and other spaces of life, where pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds, radon, and second-hand smoke negatively impact human health and daily life.
Numerous scientific and medical studies have demonstrated that polluted air has severe impacts on human health, increasing the risk of strokes, heart diseases, and various respiratory illnesses. Recent technologies, such as those that release nanoparticles smaller than 1 micron (PM1), can exacerbate the neurotoxic impacts of air pollution, which are sometimes difficult to detect in the atmosphere even with more expensive monitoring systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that approximately 40 million people living in the 115 largest cities in Europe are exposed to air that exceeds guideline thresholds for at least one pollutant.
Air pollution is now the largest environmental risk for early death, responsible for more than 8 million premature deaths yearly due to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and respiratory diseases. This number is higher than the combined deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria worldwide. For instance, in all the 41 nations that reported to the EEA in 2019, chronic exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2,5) alone has been linked to 373,000 premature deaths. At least 58% or 216,000 of these deaths could have been avoided if all 41 countries had reached the WHO’s new air quality guideline level of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5.
Vulnerable groups such as children, elderly individuals, people with existing conditions, ethnic minorities, and low-income communities are at greater risk of adverse health outcomes and economic impacts caused by exposure to air pollution.
Research has suggested that long-term exposure to some pollutants increases the risk of emphysema more than smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Recent studies have also shown that air pollution can impact mental health, worker productivity, and even stock market performance. It is linked to low productivity at work, poor scores on academic tests, and, according to some recent studies, may even promote suicide, as reported by the World Health Organization in their 2022 report.
To develop effective solutions, it is crucial to gain a deeper understanding of the harmful effects of air pollution. It is a mixture of small particles, which are also vectors of viruses, and harmful gases. The World Health Organization has linked exposure to air pollution to various health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, systemic inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified PM2.5 as a leading cause of cancer. PM is made up of small airborne particles such as dust, soot, and liquid drops, with the majority in urban areas formed from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, road vehicles, non-road equipment, and industrial facilities. Furthermore, electric vehicles, while removing tailpipe emissions, are raising concerns over non-exhaust particle emissions resulting from tire, brake, and road abrasion. Chronic exposure to air pollution can affect every organ in the body, exacerbating existing health conditions. The latest estimates by the European Environment Agency reveal that fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) continues to have the most substantial health impacts.
The European Commission’s Zero Pollution Action Plan sets the goal of reducing premature deaths caused by PM2.5 by at least 55% by 2030. In response, the Commission is revising the ambient air quality directives to align with WHO recommendations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary reduction in human activities resulted in lower emissions of some air pollutants, but we have since returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity.
Air quality data reported to the EEA indicates that NO2 concentrations decreased in April 2020 in many European cities, where lockdown measures had been implemented, mainly emitted by road transport. PM10 concentrations were also lower in April 2020, with the greatest reductions estimated at traffic stations in Spain and Italy. The relationship between air pollution and viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, is twofold: air pollution can affect vulnerability and susceptibility to viruses, and it can spread viruses through airborne particles. Recent studies have highlighted the importance of clean indoor environments in reducing the risk of infection, making air purifiers an effective tool to reduce pollutant concentrations and the risk of infection indoors.
A NEW SOLUTION NOW ARISES TO SOLVE MANY ISSUES AND MAIN IMPACTS
In the last years, ISCLEANAIR, an Italian SME, has validated and introduced on the markets, at the service of people and the environment, an innovative filter-less and nature-based technology called Air Pollution Abatement (APA), which demonstrated to be widely effective in removing the widest range of dangerous particles and gases, as well as viruses and microorganisms present in the ambient air. The technology is now ready to be industrialized and commercialized and represents a sustainable alternative to traditional air purifiers that use filters or even sets of filters, which require regular and expensive replacements to maintain their efficiency. The filter-less technology has no detriment over time, using simple water and mechanical processes to strongly reduce particulate matter and a range of chemical and gaseous pollutants by up to 99%; it also has the capability to remove nanoparticles as small as 0.01 μm, which is smaller than the size of viruses, making it a particularly useful solution to prevent or solve many issues associated with current pandemic. APA is certified and patented globally, recognized as a “Best Available Technology” (BAT) and is different from its competitors as it does not require filters nor additives, works at ground level and has the lowest running costs; the technology is fully protected by IPRs and has been deployed in over 170 real-world installations already completed, demonstrating again and again its ability to reduce air pollution concentrations both indoors and outdoors.
The innovative prominent project “PURE – air Purification Units for Manufacturing Environments” demonstrated the capability to provide clean and healthy air for workers in manufacturing environments, by removing harmful particles and pollutants from the air.
It confirmed the remarkable solution and the forward-looking approach to tackle the problem of poor air quality in manufacturing spaces in a new way, operating close to workers and in areas of risk eliminating fugitive pollution by creating safer and healthier working environments for employees, and enhancing the overall air quality in the workplace, while also permitting to increase production and reducing energy consumptions.
The potential of APA technology to efficiently remove air pollutants and greenhouse gases across different industries is significant, also with the interior design solutions in advanced development.
Additionally, urban areas with poor air quality caused by sources like domestic heating and road traffic could greatly benefit from it.
At the actual stage of technology development, it is not certain whether the benefits reported can be applied to outdoor locations without shelters, however, the experiments carried out within the first piloting projects have demonstrated significant improvement effects outdoors as well, and the company has planned (and invented) to achieve wide integration with street types of furniture, as well as with new services and solutions to concretely serve the related urban spaces.
In fact, sheltered outdoor locations like the already-designed sports facilities, markets, lampposts, and bus shelters could benefit from APA technology, which has the potential to convert polluted air that exceeds air quality standards into compliant treated air.
The solutions can also be applied in rural and agricultural areas with significant nitrogen deposition issues due to intensive livestock housing, such as poultry and swine and, although further testing phases are necessary to confirm the effectiveness of APA also in reducing NH3, is highly likely to have new successful cases given NH3’s absorptive nature in liquid phases, like ammonium.
Very interesting evidence recently arrived from the review of APA technology in compared equivalence exercise of “tree purification effects” revealing some proposals and recommendations to improve them. English environmental and engineering consultancy company Ricardo completed independent APA tree equivalence calculations which suggest that the capability of one APA standard is equivalent to the absorbing power of 50 trees for PM10, 1,598 trees for NOx, and 2,967 trees (using electricity from the UK national grid) or 3,677 trees (using 100% renewable electricity) for CO2.
As widely explained, exposure to toxic pollutants (such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and a range of volatile organic compounds) is an issue relevant to all people’s health, because it determines a major public sanitary concern, causing a variety of fatal illnesses. Polluted air, especially in working spaces and urban areas, is particularly dangerous and it also contributes to the exacerbation of climate change.
For the outlined reasons, all air pollution control and improvement measures provide a win-win situation for the environment and human health: they also aid in the short- and long-term mitigation of climate change while reducing the burden of severe events, productivity losses and sickness brought on by air pollution.
Due to the mentioned reasons the innovative water-based and filter-less technology named APA (Air Pollution Abatement), owned by ISCLEANAIR, represents a successful solution to air pollution impacts and the spread of illnesses and to the worsening of environmental conditions because it guarantees a 99% efficacy in reducing particulate matter, and the widest range of chemical and gaseous pollutants, viruses and microorganisms present in the ambient air we all breath, creating healthier and safer places to live and work.
- Climate and Environmental Research Institute NILU, https://www.nilu.com/2021/11/cleaner-air-could-have-saved-at-least-216000-european-lives-in-2019/
- European Environment Agency, Air pollution, https://www.eea.europa.eu/en/topics/in-depth/air-pollution
- European Environment Agency, Air quality in Europe, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2022
- WHO Air quality Database 2022 https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/who-air-quality-database-2022
- Report of Ricardo PLC: “Energy Efficient Building project” – Innovate UK 2023 and other documents regarding the company and the technology
Giuseppe Spanto, Fabio Galatioto, Chiara Verderese and the ISCLEANAIR working team