What the f*ck are we actually breathing?!

Have you ever wondered??

This thought crosses my mind every single time I walk along a major road. Fumes, particulate, wireless signals; there is a LOT of stuff drenching our skin (and our insides) that is frighteningly far removed from the unadulterated natural air our respiratory and pulmonary systems were designed for.

It’s all very well to condemn smokers for intentionally putting filth in their bodies, but we’ve all gotta breathe the same air! Think how clean the pipes of our forefathers would have been! Identical anatomy, yet never contending with the man-made components of the modern atmosphere.

So I copped a big mouthful of truck fumes cycling to work the other day. Obviously I didn’t keel over and die then and there, but golly gosh was the toxicity of that experience palpable! It wasn’t the first time either, so naturally I have since had my dork hat on and done some research.

I have ascertained the following diagnosis of the air we breathe in big cities. Pretty much all of these substances are by-products of burning fossil fuels, and mostly from combustion engines; as such, the following is relevant primarily for urban areas with lots of roads.

On top of the oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other delicious natural components of the atmosphere, we’re currently inhaling the following ‘condiments’ on top:

Sulfur dioxide: reacts easily with other substances to create harmful compounds like sulfuric acid (ever wondered where acid rain comes from? Yep). Particularly shithouse for asthmatics as its a serious irritant for those with sensitive respiratory passages.

Nitrogen dioxide: contributes to photochemical smog and is a savage respiratory irritant, reducing immunity to lung infections. Reduces plant growth, especially in combination when sulfur dioxide and/or ozone is also present. Can cause acid rain.

Carbon monoxide: invisible, odourless, terrifying. Reduces oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, organs begin failing. First symptom is reportedly a loss of concentration as the brain begins shutting down, slowly at first, then speeding up rapidly. Also has a greenhouse effect, in case health implications weren’t scary enough. Yikes.

Ammonia: shockingly toxic to marine life. A small amount is actually essential for healthy soil, however excess ammonia leaches into the water table and acidifies surrounding ecology. Low level inhalation = burning of eyes, throat, nose. High level inhalation = blindness, lung damage, death.

Particulate matter: particles of solid or liquid, suspended in gas. Known as ‘aerosol’ (yep, just like your Rexona) meaning a combination of air and solid. Aside from destabilising soil chemistry, depending on what it is - lead, mercury, etc - that shit will settle in your lungs, producing associated health impacts like lung cancer and heart disease.


I don’t care about the hills anymore, I’ll be taking the bike paths in future if it means I can avoid breathing in any more of this shit. Although in saying that, we are WAY better off here in Australia than in many other places in the world. If this information made you uncomfortable, look up global air quality statistics: China and India have seriously horrifying rap sheets.

But this is increasingly a source frustration for me: we are literally the luckiest people in the entire world. We have one of the cleanest and most beautiful pieces of land on the entire planet, yet collectively we are some of the world’s worst polluters. Biggest global coal exporter, disturbingly high per capita carbon emissions, incredibly marginal vegetarian community.

We’ve gotta wake up! We’ve gotta start taking some responsibility! We have all the requisite motivation to galvanise and show the rest of the world what it means to care for the planet. Let’s at least try?! At the very least let’s try before the rest of world realises how little we currently do?

This really is The Lucky Country and we really are The Lucky Ones.

Time to show it!