Impact of Air Pollution on Health
What is the issue?
- The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.
- With nine out of 10 people on the planet now breathing polluted air, nobody is safe from air pollution, the United Nations warned on World Environment Day.
- This has led to a growing, global health crisis, which already causes about 7 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Burning fossil fuels for power, transport and industry is a major contributor to air pollution as well as the main source of planet-warming carbon emissions. Tackling both these problems together could bring substantial benefits for public health.
Some facts on the human impacts of air pollution and its links with climate change
- Air pollution kills 800 people every hour or 13 every minute, accounting for more than three times the amount of people who die from malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined each year.
- Some of the same pollutants contribute to both climate change and local air pollution, including black carbon or soot – produced by inefficient combustion in sources like cook-stoves and diesel engines – and methane.
- The five main sources of air pollution are –
- indoor burning of fossil fuels, woods and other biomass to cook, heat and light homes;
- industry, including power generation such as coal-fired plants and diesel generators;
- transport, especially vehicles with diesel engines;
- agriculture, including livestock, which produces methane and ammonia, rice paddies, which produce methane, and the burning of agricultural waste; and
- open waste burning and organic waste in landfills.
- Household air pollution causes about 3.8 million premature deaths each year, the vast majority of them in the developing world, and about 60 per cent of those deaths are among women and children.
- Children: 93% of children worldwide live in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO guidelines, with 600,000 children below the age of 15 dying from respiratory tract infections in 2016.
- Deaths: Air pollution is responsible for 26 per cent of deaths from ischemic heart disease, 24 per cent of deaths from strokes, 43 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 per cent from lung cancer.
- In children, it is associated with low birth weight, asthma, childhood cancers, obesity, poor lung development and autism, among other health defects.
- Urban air pollution: As many as 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet the WHO minimum air quality levels, and in high-income countries, 29% of cities fall short of guidelines.
- About 25 per cent of urban ambient air pollution from fine particulate matter is contributed by traffic, 20 per cent by domestic fuel burning and 15 per cent by industrial activities including electricity generation.
- Paris agreement: Keeping global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 in Fahrenheit), as governments have pledged to do under the 2015 Paris Agreement, could save about a million lives a year by 2050 through reducing air pollution alone.
- In the 15 countries that emit the most planet-warming gases, the cost of air pollution for public health is estimated at more than 4 per cent of GDP.
- In comparison, keeping heat to the Paris Agreement temperature limits would require investing about 1 per cent of global GDP.
Impact of air pollution
- Health effects: The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.
- This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.
- Air pollution is hard to escape. It is all around us.
- Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.
- Climate change: Air pollution is closely linked to climate change – the main driver of climate change is fossil fuel combustion which is also a major contributor to air pollution – and efforts to mitigate one can improve the other.
- IPCC: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that coal-fired electricity must end by 2050 if we are to limit global warming rises to 1.5C. If not, we may see a major climate crisis in just 20 years.
- Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change could save about a million lives a year worldwide by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone.
- Economic benefits: The economic benefits from tackling air pollution are significant: in the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of air pollution are estimated to cost more than 4% of their GDP.
- To help people better understand just how polluted the air is where they live, the WHO, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Breathe Life campaign developed an online pollution meter.
- In 2018, WHO and partners convened the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva on 29 October – 1 November to rally the world towards major commitments to fight this problem.
- The conference raised awareness of this growing public health challenge and share information and tools on the health risks of air pollution and its interventions.
Types of air pollution
- There are two main types of air pollution –
- ambient air pollution (outdoor pollution) and
- household (or indoor) air pollution refers to pollution generated by household combustion of fuels (caused by burning fuel such as coal, wood or kerosene) using open fires or basic stoves in poorly ventilated spaces.
- Both indoor and outdoor air pollution can contribute to each other, as air moves from inside buildings to the outside, and vice versa.
- Household air pollution kills 4 million people a year and tends to affect countries in Africa and Asia, where polluting fuels and technologies are used every day particularly at home for cooking, heating and lighting.
- Women and children, who tend to spend more time indoors, are affected the most.
- The main pollutants: are
- (1) particulate matter, a mix of solid and liquid droplets arising mainly from fuel combustion and road traffic;
- (2) nitrogen dioxide from road traffic or indoor gas cookers;
- (3) sulphur dioxide from burning fossil fuels; and
- (4) ozone at ground level, caused by the reaction of sunlight with pollutants from vehicle emissions.
- The pollutant that affects people the most is particulate matter (often abbreviated to PM and used as a measure for air pollution).
- While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10) can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, (≤ PM2.5).
- These particles are so small that 60 of them make up the width of a human hair.
- 5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. They can increase the risk of heart and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.
- Ozone is a major factor in causing asthma (or making it worse), and nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide can also cause asthma, bronchial symptoms, lung inflammation and reduced lung function.
- For PM2.5 , WHO guidelines say the maximum safe level is an annual average concentration of 10 μg/m3 or less.
- To encourage cities to reduce air pollution, even if they are unable to meet the ideal safe levels, WHO has set three interim targets for cities. These are:
- 15 μg/m3 (interim target 3);
- 25 μg/m3 (interim target 2);
- 35 μg/m3 (interim target 1).
- Many cities are now exceeding the very upper level of interim target 1.
Effects on children
- Air pollution has a disastrous effect on children.
- Worldwide, up to 14% of children aged 5 – 18 years have asthma relating to factors including air pollution.
- Every year, 543 000 children* younger than 5 years die from respiratory disease linked to air pollution.
- Air pollution is also linked to childhood cancers. Pregnant women are exposed to air pollution, it can affect fetal brain growth.
- Air pollution is also linked to cognitive impairment in both children and adults.
- As well as affecting our health, pollutants in the air are also causing long-term environmental damage by driving climate change, itself a major threat to health and well-being.
- UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that coal-fired electricity must end by 2050 if we are to limit global warming rises to 1.5C. If not, we may see a major climate crisis in just 20 years.
- WHO and partners such as UN Environment are developing ways to support countries.
- For example, WHO is developing a toolkit (the Clean Household Energy Solutions Toolkit, CHEST) to help countries implement WHO’s recommendations on household fuel combustion and to develop policies to expand clean household energy use.
- BreatheLife – a global campaign for clean air, headed by WHO, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and UN Environment – is mobilizing communities to reduce the impact of air pollution in cities, regions and countries, currently reaching around 97 million people.
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