Galit Palzur
Galit Palzur
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Clean air used to be free; now you need to pay for it

Home pollutants like aerosol deodorants have led those who can foot the bill to purchase air purification systems, with frightening implications for the have-nots
Sky above Jerusalem on August 15, 2021, following the wildfire on the outskirts of the city. Photo by Galit Palzur
Sky above Jerusalem on August 15, 2021, following the wildfires on the outskirts of the city. (Galit Palzur)

Global warming has become a pressing issue these days as evidence suggests humanity needs to address the problem rapidly and significantly to limit the rise in the average global temperature and avoid catastrophic consequences. More and more people are talking about climate change and the media has been devoting a lot of attention to it and its effects. It is quite clear that the impacts of climate change will influence our day-to-day lives with some effects evident sooner than others. Nevertheless, there is one related yet different issue that might kill us or at least affect our health more, before global warming takes its toll, and that is the issue of air pollution.

In simplistic terms, while greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO2, are those that are attributed to climate change and global warming, air pollutants (which can also influence climate) are mostly associated with health effects. Air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are known to cause adverse health and their main sources are electricity production, industry, and transportation. There are three types of air pollution sources to consider: outdoor air pollution, background air pollution (which is a type of outdoor pollution), and indoor air pollution.

Those who do not regularly follow the news in the various environmental fields have probably missed the release of the new World Health Organization (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) from September 22, 2021. In its publication, the WHO states that new evidence indicates that even lower concentrations of air pollutants than thought before can adversely affect human health. The statement mentioned that roughly 7 million people die prematurely each year around the world from air pollution related illnesses. The press release also stated: “Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change. Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation efforts, whereas reducing emissions will in turn improve air quality. By striving to achieve these guideline levels, countries will be both protecting health as well as mitigating global climate change”. To this fact it is important to add the burden of air pollution related illnesses on society and the economy.

Climate change and air pollution are not only linked because many of the sources of air pollution also contribute to global warming, and vice versa, but there are also several other interactions. For instance, wildfires caused by warmer and drier climate conditions exacerbate the problem of air pollution since these fires release toxins into the air, which are inhaled by people residing close to the fires but also by people further away, as these pollutants can travel far away from the source of the smoke to other geographical locations.

In addition to these sources of air pollution in Israel, unfortunately, the background air pollution – the air pollution from natural sources – is quite high, meaning that even if we reduce pollution from manmade sources, dust storms are still going to blow particulate matter into our homes, coat our cars with layers of dust and affect the economy. While the health effects of sand and dust storms have been studied comprehensively and are considered very disturbing, the effects of sand and dust storms on infrastructure and economic activity has not been addressed properly in Israel. There are no reliable estimates on these impacts. Several examples of these impacts, taken from the World Bank report on “Sand and Dust Storms in the Middle East,” are reduced labor productivity, reduced visibility which interrupts or delays transportation modes, reduced crop yields and higher livestock mortality, and infrastructure damage.

Despite the seeming reduction of the main air pollutants in Israel over the years due to the shifting of electricity production from coal to natural gas or the use of more fuel-efficient automobiles that release less pollutants, there are many other air pollutants that have not been taken into consideration properly, some of which are in our homes – what is also known as indoor air pollution. As an example, several volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from paint, solvents, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays (yes, even your deodorant and hairspray), cleansers, disinfectants, air fresheners and so forth. Some of them have been shown to cause cancer in humans, allergic reactions or breathing problems, and several others are suspected of causing cancer.

The main conclusion from what was depicted above is that air pollution is all around us (not to mention tobacco smoke). And the situation is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Three points illustrate this argument well. First, Article 5 of Israel’s Clean Air Law (2008) requires the government to adopt at least once every five years a national action plan that includes quantitative targets to reduce air pollution. A previous plan from 2013 referred only to selected air pollutants and its targets were quite low. This is now even more evident following the WHO publication, which was mentioned above. In addition, it seems that a newer government action plan for reducing air pollution in the coming years is nonexistent.

Second, according to its statements, it seems that the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection is basing the reduction of air pollution in Israel in the coming decades on the gradual carbon tax it intends to impose on fossil fuels (only as a positive side effect for reducing GHGs to combat climate change). Third, Israel’s renewable energy targets — 30 percent by the year 2030 — mean that still 70% of the country’s energy production will cause air pollution.

As a result, many people are not waiting for the change to come.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA), the most effective ways to improve indoor air quality are to reduce or remove the sources of the pollutants and to ventilate with clean outdoor air. But what happens when the air outside is also polluted? Much of Israel’s population is exposed to different types of outdoor air pollution: people live or work near main and congested roads, near constructions sites or in desert areas, near industrial areas or pirate sites for the illegal burning of waste, or they just have a neighbor who uses a choking fireplace. Just like in other much worse-affected areas around the world, many Israelis have started buying air filtration systems for homes and offices. There are different Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) technologies that can purify indoor air. There are also portable air purifiers that can be moved from one room to another. There are also technologies, like Radgreen, that allow people to know how much air pollution they have at home or at the office, enabling them to act. After all, acknowledging the problem and recognizing its extent is a prerequisite for action.

Photo by elenabsl. Shutterstock

As these tools for improving air quality are becoming more popular, the bottom line is that people in Israel are paying for clean air. Like with other goods that in the past were free (people would go fetch free potable water from the lake or well or park their cars for free on the streets), today people pay for these goods and now even the air we breathe is becoming a commodity. And according to several researchers, there are many people that are willing to pay a lot for clean air by buying the technologies mentioned above. This has become in the last decade a growing industry in several air pollution-stricken cities, especially in Southeast Asia, and it is most likely to grow even more in future years.

These technologies are much needed to address a significant growing health problem. Yet there are many things to say about the growing popularity of these technologies including what it implies about the government’s efforts to reduce air pollution. Still to my opinion, the biggest problem it raises is that of environmental injustice: those people who have the means to buy these purifying technologies will be able to reduce the adverse health effects of air pollution while the poorer population will continue to be susceptible to air pollution illnesses because they are not able to afford to buy clean air.

About the Author
Galit Palzur is an economist, specializing in corporate risk management of natural disasters and extreme events. Previously, she was the Director of the Economics and Standards Division at the Ministry of Environmental Protection; Chairman of the Bureau of the OECD Working Party on Climate, Investment and Development; economist at the Budgets Division at the Ministry of Finance, and served as board-member of several government-owned companies and statutory bodies.
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