Smog: What it is and why it's a problem

If you’ve ever traveled to a developing country (or lived in a place like the United States a few decades ago), there’s a good chance that you’ve seen haze hanging around buildings and muddying up the horizon. While this may look like clouds, what you see is actually a form of air pollution, known as smog. 


Unfortunately, smog is becoming more and more common in many parts of the world, including in countries supposedly leading the transition to renewable energy. As smog can have a severe impact on human health, this is dangerous.  

Where smog comes from 

The term “smog” first originated in the 1900s to describe the combination of smoke and fog. During that time, smog was common in many cities worldwide, including places like London, New York City, and Cleveland. Today, most people associate smog with countries like China, India, Mexico, and Brazil, while many wealthy countries have reduced smog levels. 


Most of the smog we see is photochemical. It’s visible because sunlight mixes with nitrogen oxides and one or more volatile organic compounds. Coal power plants, factories, and car exhaust release nitrogen oxides, while paints, cleaning solvents, and gasoline release VOCs. 


Today, many countries like the United States have laws to control how much smog gets pumped into the atmosphere. However, corporations often ignore these laws or relocate to regions that don’t have them. 

How smog impacts health

Continual exposure to high levels of smog can lead to many different health problems. As it often gets breathed in, smog can cause lung damage. For people with asthma and other sensitive groups, smog can even require a trip to the hospital. In extreme cases, high levels of it can lead to premature death.


In addition to damaging your lungs, smog can also harm your eyes and nose. Most people start to feel irritation in these areas on smoggy days, and often the only relief is to avoid going outside.


Like humans, animals and plants also don’t respond well to smog. Pets like cats and dogs experience many of the same symptoms as humans, while plants can struggle to grow and may even die.

Steps you can take to stay safe 

While a lot of smog comes from corporations and factories, many people collectively contribute to pollution levels without realizing it. By taking a few simple steps, you can help reduce your emissions while also staying safe. 


If you live in a busy city, make a point to avoid driving as much as possible. Whether you walk, ride a bike, or ride public transportation, not using a personal car helps keep the air clean. 


If your home has a yard, you should also make a point to avoid using gas-powered machinery. Electric lawnmowers, weed whackers, and other appliances are all much better for the environment.


Finally, if smog levels are particularly nasty one day, try your best to avoid going outside. Smog can still find its way into your home, but provided that you keep your windows and outside doors closed, you can help limit its pervasiveness. If you do have to go outside, make sure to wear an N95 mask with PM 2.5 filters. 

Fight for change 

As with ecological damage in general, individuals often aren’t the real culprits—businesses, governments, and industry are. However, being aware of your environmental footprint is essential.


Remember—in addition to taking stock of your own life and actions, always demand better from those in power. Shop sustainability, and don’t be afraid to contact your representatives and urge them to take action.

Through collective power, we can help combat smog and other environmental issues.

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