Health consequences of air pollution on populations

What are the public health impacts of air pollution?

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause various health outcomes. Therefore, the short—and long-term public health consequences of air pollution exposure should be carefully assessed, in particular the impacts of fine particles which penetrate deep into the lung passageways and pose a significant threat to public health. Increased health risks, such as respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, can severely affect people who are already ill, such as children, the elderly, and poor people. Furthermore, poor air quality increases the risk of stillbirth, miscarriage, and neurological conditions such as cognitive impairment and dementia.

In 2019, air pollution caused about 6.7 million deaths. Of these, almost 85% are attributable to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and diabetes. This makes air pollution the second leading cause of NCDs globally after tobacco.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

Solutions to air pollution are everybody’s responsibility to protect public health. We all need to do more–a lot more–swiftly and proactively to reduce air pollution. Coordinated efforts with active involvement of all sectors are crucial. This includes governments (on national, state, and local levels), cities, communities, and individuals.

To national governments: Reduce emissions and set national standards that meet WHO air quality guidelines. Invest in research and education about clean air and pollution—here are some vital tools to tools to evaluate policies and progress on air quality actions policies and progress on air quality actions.

To cities and local communities: Different sectors should include health in all policies, with sufficient data and tools to assess health outcomes.

To individuals: Stand up for your right to healthy and sustainable environments. Hold your government accountable.

All of us – Think and rethink how we live and consume and make sustainable choices for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter (PM) is particles in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Diesel vehicles and coal-fired power plants typically emit large particulate matter concentrations. For example, particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a serious health concern because they can be inhaled and accumulate in the respiratory system. Specifically, particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5), also called “fine” particles, pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), they lodge themselves deep into the lungs and can penetrate into the blood stream.

What are the sources of air pollution?

Major sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport (polluting fuels and vehicles), inefficient combustion of household fuels for cooking, lighting and heating, coal-fired power plants, agriculture, and waste burning.

Some air pollutants are also greenhouse gases and with significant climate impacts. This further affects the burden of morbidity and mortality caused by air pollution.

What can countries do to reduce air pollution?

Interventions to reduce the health consequences of air pollution include:

  • developing sustainable transport in cities
  • implementing solid waste management
  • providing access to clean household fuels and cookstoves
  • developing market for renewable energies and energy efficiency
  • implementing industrial emissions reductions.

How does WHO work with countries to reduce air pollution?

WHO identifies and monitors air pollutants that have the greatest impact on people’s health. This, in turn, supports countries in focusing on the most effective way to prevent or reduce health risks. WHO reviews and analyzes scientific evidence and uses expert advice to draw conclusions on how air pollutants affect health. It identifies effective measures to reduce air pollution.

In 2015, WHO Member States adopted a resolution to “address the adverse health effects of air pollution”. Member States then agreed on a road map for “an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution”. WHO’s work to address the health consequences of air pollution and lack of energy access rests on four pillars:

  1. Expanding the knowledge base
  2. Monitoring and reporting
  3. Global leadership and coordination
  4. Institutional capacity strengthening

WHO’s Strategy on Air Quality and Health

WHO’s strategy on air quality, energy, and health identifies concrete actions where the health sector can have a lead or supporting role in promoting health in all policies and ensuring access to quality health services. The three cross-cutting areas are:

1. Knowledge, evidence and measuring progress;

2. Institutional capacity building and technical support; and

3. Leadership and coordination.

The “WHO Strategic Approach for Air Quality, Energy Access and Health” elaborates a framework and related actions for 2023-2030 to strengthen WHO’s efforts to protect populations from the health consequences of air pollution and lack of energy access.

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