Air Pollution

The Psychology of Air Pollution

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John Wilton-Davies

Humans aren’t an entirely logical species.  When we see an immediate danger to our lives we take action – jump out of the way of a speeding car or flee a burning building for example – but when faced with dangerous, but not so immediate,risks we more often than not simply ignore the peril, indifferent to the fact that we will pay the price later.

This is a well-known phenomenon.  It explains why some people continue to smoke, despite being completely aware of the risks.  It’s the reason many don’t plan financially for their retirement, and it explains why we don’t always apply sun cream.

It’s been said that this is the same reason most of us do absolutely nothing to protect ourselves from air pollution.  After all, pollution doesn’t normally do its damage in any hurry.  At typical environmental levels it usually takes years to have any serious impact (except,unfortunately, in the case of unborn or young children).  We are increasingly aware of the dangers to our health from man-made emissions and yet, other than expecting government action to reduce or resolve the problem, take no action to mitigate the personal danger.

However, there is an important and odd difference between these examples.  Smokers enjoy smoking, many of us love a good tan and non-retirement planners like their holidays, new cars and the more extravagant lifestyle they can afford.  The pleasure overcomes the lesser guilt that they’re perhaps not making the best long-term decision.

With air pollution there’s obviously no pleasure to exposing yourself to it.  Deliberately breathing in particulates or noxious gases brings no benefits and often short-term discomfort.  When pollution is especially bad, to the extent it’s visible, some people do take basic steps such as wearing a face mask or staying indoors, but overall it’s hard to explain why we don’t do more, sooner.

Traditionally, the population can be roughly divided in two:those who are sufficiently health-aware to go out of their way to make improvements – such as more exercise or more fruit and vegetables – and those who, to be honest, just can’t be bothered. Yet the vast majority of even the health-aware do nothing in respect of personal pollution exposure.

This is a major challenge, not only for public health policymakers but for smaller influencers like us at Plain Air.  We know that those who have visited our site or receive or newsletter are probably already educated in the dangers of air pollution, so banging on about asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia might not be enough to stimulate action.  Perhaps oddly, we do seem to take much greater care over the long-term of others, so much of our message is aimed not at the reader or the viewer but at their children, their family or their employees.

Most of us understand and act upon the importance of protecting our children’s health through vaccination, good diet and life skills, such as how to cross a road safely, so protecting them from air pollution is an obvious progression. Health and Safety rules ensure businesses keep their places of work safe for their employees but, outside of obvious industries, most companies pay no real attention to the air quality – even though it will have a major impact on productivity and profits.  It’s only a matter of time before the courts begin to fill with sick employees suing their firms for poor air quality.

Air pollution is serious. It’s time we moved on from talking about it to doing something about it– if not for ourselves then for those around us.  And there are some really effective, practical solutions we can all make use of.

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