It is not always easy to foresee the health consequences of pollution. It stands to reason that pollution is not good for human life. And instinctively we move away from polluted things and polluted places. When I comes to the air that we breathe it it impossible for most people to move away from where they live and live where the air is purer and better.
Most of the impurities in the air are put there as a result of humans burning things, usually fuel. In cities it is particularly hard to escape the consequences of burning fuel and these health consequences strike in many ways. There are many people with asthma and breathing related diseases caused by particulates that arise from fossil fuel burning, particularly diesel vehicles. The effects on health of nitrous oxides are also well documented. Carbon monoxide, a by-product of incomplete combustion from cars, gas boilers, cigarette and cigar smoking is well known as a poisonous gas which kills people in overdoses. Its more subtle effects on health are not well known.
It seems that if you smoke your blood has measurable quantities of carbon monoxide whereas a non smoker has no carbon monoxide in his or her blood, unless that non smoker lives close to heavy traffic or in close proximity to the flue of a gas boiler.
It is now been discovered that carbon monoxide in the blood disrupts normal heart beats but interfering with the sodium channels that keep heart beats steady and normal. Heart beat disruption is not a healthy thing; irregular heartbeats, which are known as arrhythmia, make you feel tired, worn out, and can even kill you by putting too much strain on a heart struggling to pump blood around your body.
Even low levels of carbon monoxide can cause arrhythmia. We may choose to reduce risk by stopping smoking but as individuals if we stop using our cars or stop burning fossil fuel we will not prevent others from driving or using their boilers and thus affecting our health.
This is the classic conundrum which appears in many of today’s problems, ranging from crime, to war to climate change. One person acting properly does not make a difference but everyone acting properly and with responsibility to others does not just make a difference but actually it solves the problem. It is a matter of selfishness. Selfishness puts individual comfort and survival above the comfort and survival of the group as a whole. Our behaviour must balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. Selfishness rightly prevents self sacrifice. It is not a question of “I am just going outside and I may be some time” of Titus Oates in the Antarctic.
It is less dramatic than that, more low key and unsung. Living responsibly means using less, polluting less and damaging less than we do now and putting up with some discomfort if your luxury causes others to suffer.
It is more heroic to live responsibly than to die bravely.