How air pollution is destroying our health

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (eg stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year.

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, no matter how rich an area you live in. It’s all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defenses, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

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. This month, the 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.

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. The economic benefits of 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.

“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. “The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.