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ClientEarth Communications

12th August 2021

Air pollution

How is air pollution caused? What are its effects on our health and the environment?

What causes air pollution?

Air pollution refers to the contamination of our air with harmful gases and particulates. Globally, 9 out of 10 people breathe polluted air but many people are unaware of the potential health and environmental impacts of poor air quality. Here’s what you need to know.

Air pollution is caused when harmful gases and chemicals are released into the air. These pollutants include Particulate Matter (very small particles that get into our respiratory system), nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.

The majority of these pollutants are emitted through human activities like burning fossil fuels, vehicle exhaust fumes and emissions from agriculture and industry.

How does air pollution affect our health?

Air pollution has a huge impact on our health, reducing quality of live and cutting lives short. In fact, it’s the world’s largest single environmental health risk. It aggravates breathing conditions and increases the risk of asthma attacks leading to more hospital admissions. Prolonged exposure can cause serious medical conditions, such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes. In fact, one in three deaths from strokes, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease globally are caused by air pollution.

While we are all affected, those who are the most vulnerable in our society are more at risk, especially children and older people. Exposure to air pollution can cause children to develop breathing conditions and stunted lungs.

There is also a growing body of research linking air pollution to other illnesses, including diabetes, developmental problems for children and suggested links to dementia.

Watch Dr Zoe Williams explain how air pollution impacts our bodies, long-term health and children

How does air pollution affect the environment?

A great number of air pollution sources are also those of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Greenhouse gases cause the Earth’s heat to be trapped in the atmosphere, which leads to warmer temperatures, exacerbating climate change.

Air pollution can also impact the quality of soil and water, impacting ecosystems and wildlife.

How can we reduce air pollution?

We need policies and laws in place that protect people’s health and support the shift to cleaner alternatives. At ClientEarth, we’ve taken legal action to combat pollution and fight for clean air in 11 countries across Europe. We’re calling on the UK government to introduce stronger clean air laws to better protect people’s health. We’re also working to design more stringent EU laws that will have an impact in all EU Member States.

How can you avoid air pollution?

Avoid busy roads and high traffic areas, where possible, try to walk on the side of the pavement furthest from the road and choose routes through green spaces. The further you are from traffic, the lower the pollution levels.

If you suffer from lung conditions, avoid doing strenuous exercise on high pollution days.

More on air pollution