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Health consequences of air pollution

What are the impacts of air pollution on public health?

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of health outcomes. Therefore, the short- and long-term public health consequences of exposure to air pollution must be carefully evaluated, particularly the impacts of fine particles that 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 sick, such as children, the elderly, and the poor. Additionally, poor air quality increases the risk of stillbirth, miscarriages, and neurological conditions such as cognitive decline and dementia.

In 2019, air pollution caused around 6.7 million deaths. Of these, almost 85% are attributable to non-communicable 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 everyone’s responsibility to protect public health. We must all do more, much more, quickly and proactively to reduce air pollution. Coordinated efforts with the active participation of all sectors are crucial. This includes governments (national, state and local), cities, communities and individuals.

To national governments: Reduce emissions and establish national standards that meet WHO air quality guidelines. Invest in research and education on clean air and pollution: Below are some vital tools for evaluating policies and progress on air quality measures.

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

to individuals: Defend 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 decisions for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter (PM) are particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Diesel vehicles and coal-fired power plants typically emit high concentrations of particulate matter. For example, particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a serious health problem because they can be inhaled and accumulate in the respiratory system. Specifically, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), also called “fine” particles, pose the greatest health risks. Due to its small size (approximately 1/30th (the average width of a human hair), lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream.

What are the sources of air pollution?

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

Some air pollutants are also greenhouse gases and have 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:

  • develop sustainable transport in cities
  • implement solid waste management
  • Provide access to clean household fuels and stoves.
  • Developing market for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
  • implement industrial emissions reductions.

How is WHO working with countries to reduce air pollution?

The WHO identifies and monitors air pollutants that have the greatest impact on people’s health. This, in turn, helps countries focus on the most effective way to prevent or reduce health risks. The WHO reviews and analyzes scientific evidence and uses expert advice to draw conclusions about how air pollutants affect health. Identify 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 roadmap for “an improved global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution.” WHO’s work to address the health consequences of air pollution and lack of access to energy is based on four pillars:

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

WHO Strategy on Air Quality and Health

The WHO strategy on air quality, energy and health identifies concrete actions in which the health sector can play a leading or supporting role to promote health in all policies and ensure access to quality health services . The three transversal areas are:

1. Knowledge, evidence and measurement of progress;

2. Strengthening institutional capacities and technical support; and

3. Leadership and coordination.

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


Note to editors:

This press release was updated on June 25, 2024 to reflect revised data and links.

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