Air pollution and your health – what are the facts?
Air pollution is the world’s largest single environmental health risk. It has a major impact on the lives of millions of people across the globe. That’s why ClientEarth is taking action to clear the air.
Because individuals’ exposure varies so much, it’s impossible to establish exactly how air pollution affects the health of a single person. However, scientists can use growing evidence of the health effects, together with data on local pollution levels, to estimate the impact of air pollution on our societies and communities.
Here, we list some of the evidence showing why air pollution needs to be tackled urgently by governments everywhere.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that “air pollution – both ambient [outdoor] and household [indoor] – is the biggest environmental risk to health, carrying responsibility for about one in every nine deaths annually.”
- The European Respiratory Society has said that “like tobacco smoke, ambient air pollution is a well-established cause of morbidity and mortality. However, unlike smoking, air pollution is not a lifestyle choice but a ubiquitous involuntary environmental exposure, which can affect 100% of the population from the womb to death.”
- An ‘expert consensus document’ on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology states: “Air pollution has wide-ranging and deleterious effects on human health and is a major issue for the global community.” The biggest health impact of air pollution is through cardiovascular disease like heart attacks and strokes.
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans and one of the leading, and most widespread, environmental causes of cancer deaths.
- A review of studies by the ESCAPE project concluded that “exposure to air pollution may result in reduced lung function in schoolchildren.” These results are being replicated in recent studies in London. These show that children growing up in polluted parts of the city are developing smaller lungs. At the same time, a US study has shown that where air pollution levels are reduced, children’s health improves.
- Major reviews of the scientific research, such as the REVIHAAP report by the WHO and the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s report “Every breath we take” have identified links to many other health impacts such as premature births and diabetes, as well as compromising the cognitive development of children and adults.
- Globally, the WHO estimates that just in 2012, “3 million deaths were attributable to outdoor air pollution.” In the UK, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have estimated that the health impact of outdoor air pollution is equivalent to 40,000 deaths each year. This figure is reached by complex statistical methodology similar to that used when calculating the impact of smoking and obesity. Such figures are routinely used by policymakers and medical experts worldwide to illustrate the severity of such health challenges.
It’s clear that air pollution affects all of us throughout our lifetimes, from the womb to old age. We need governments everywhere to take this issue seriously and to take ambitious action to protect our health.