09 Feb

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 (e.g. 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 is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our

body’s defenses, penetrating deep into our respiratory and

circulatory system, 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 from 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.

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of adverse health outcomes. It increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer.  Both short- and long-term exposure to air pollutants have been associated with health impacts.  More severe impacts affect people who are already ill.  Children, the elderly and poor people are more susceptible.  The most health-harmful pollutants – closely associated with excessive premature mortality – are fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate deep into lung passageways. 

What can people do to protect themselves?

Fighting air pollution is everybody’s responsibility. We all need to do more, a lot more. Swiftly and proactively to reduce air pollution. Concerted and coordinated efforts with active involvement of all the sectors is imperative. This includes the Government (national, state and local governments), cities, community at large and individuals.

To national governments: reduce emissions and set national standards that meet WHO air quality guidelines. Invest in research and education around clean air and pollution – they are an essential tool.

To cities and local communities: Public policies across sectors must factor in public health from the beginning, followed up with sufficient data and tools to assess them.

To individuals: Continue to stand up for your right to healthy and sustainable environments. Hold your governments accountable.

 All of us – in government, business, and individual – we are all accountable. Think and rethink, about the way you live and consume and make sustainable choices for yourself, your children and your children’s children.

What is particulate matter, or PM?

 Particulate matter is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Large concentrations of particulate matter are typically emitted by sources such as diesel vehicles and coal-fired power plants. Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

What are some of the major sources or causes of ambient air pollution?

Major sources of ambient 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.

What can countries do to reduce air pollution?

Interventions to reduce air pollution include developing sustainable transport in cities; implementing solid waste management; providing access to clean household fuels and cook stoves; developing market for renewables energies and energy efficiency, and implementing industrial emissions reductions.

How is WHO working with countries to reduce air pollution?

WHO’s main function is to identify and monitor those air pollutants with the greatest impact on people’s health. This helps the WHO Member States to focus their actions on the most effective way to prevent, or reduce health risks. WHO’s task is to review and analyze the accumulated scientific evidence, and use expert advice to draw conclusions on how much different air pollutants affect health as well as identify effective measures to reduce the air pollution burden.

WHO Member States adopted in 2015 a resolution to “address the adverse health effects of air pollution”. The following year, Member States agreed on a road map for “an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution”. WHO is working on four pillars:

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

Certain precautions can help you better plan outdoor activities and prevent the effects of air pollution.

1.    Verify the air quality in your area

Before going out or engaging in outdoor activities, get into the habit of verifying the air quality index in your area. This way, you can determine when you should take precautions to safeguard your health. To know if the current air quality in your area is good, acceptable or poor, consult the AIR QUALITY INDEX page. It is updated every hour and shows the current air quality.

2.    As a precaution, keep your medication with you

If you have heart or respiratory problems, bring your medication with you when you go outdoors. Follow your doctor’s instructions properly to keep your symptoms under control.

3.    Avoid areas where the air is polluted

When you are physically active, you breathe deeper and faster, putting yourself in greater contact with air pollutants. Therefore, you could limit physical activity and reduce its intensity when you are in a polluted area, such as:

  • Busy roads where there is regularly a lot of traffic
  • Industrialized areas
  • Residential neighborhoods on winter nights. Many residents in these neighborhood’s operate wood stoves and fireplaces that emit pollutants into the air

Pay special attention to symptoms you may feel when outdoors. If you have difficulty breathing, stay indoors.

  • Contribute to the reduction of outdoor air pollution
  • Use methods of transportation that help reduce the number of pollutants in the air:
    • Public transport
    • Walk or bike (when air quality is good)
    • Carpool
  • Limit the use of fireplaces and wood stoves in the winter. There appliances contribute a great deal to smog during the cold season. Make sure that you maintain these appliances properly.
  • If you wish to buy a wood stove, choose an appliance that meets environmental performance standards (CSA or EPA certification). These appliances emit less particles in the air

5.    Maintain good indoor air quality 

Pay attention to the air quality inside your home because it could also be harmful to your health.

Certain outdoor pollutants, such as fine particles and ozone, can also get into your house. Other pollutants may already be present, including:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves
  • Mould and other contaminants associated with excessive humidity
  • Volatile organic compounds, mainly formaldehyde, from:
    • Household products, such as paints and varnishes
    • Construction material, such as chipboard or plywood panels
  • Carbon monoxide emitted by some appliances and vehicles during the combustion of propane, wood, fuel, etc.
  • Radon, an odorless, colorless radioactive gas that can seep into buildings
  • Asbestos from brittle or damaged material that has been sawn, sanded, etc. 

To ensure that the air quality in your home is good, reduce or eliminate major sources of pollutants:

  • Do not smoke indoors
  • Fix water infiltration problems to prevent mould growth
  • Opt for healthy and environmentally friendly household products and materials
  • Limit the use of wood-burning appliances
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector, and avoid using appliances that operate on fuel (gasoline, propane, etc.) indoors

Opening your windows regularly is an inexpensive and effective measure to maintain good indoor air quality. However, you should keep your windows shut when outdoor air quality is poor and during periods of extreme cold. 

Be sure to also:

  • Always turn on the range hood when cooking. The hood should be vented outside.
  • Turn on the bathroom fan each time someone takes a shower or a bath

If you have a central ventilation system (also known as an air exchanger), operate it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

You should install these appliances in your home if you do not yet have them. Be sure to maintain them regularly in order to uphold their efficiency.

Here are some simple, effective tips for protecting you and your family from the dangers of air pollution:

  1. Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area. The color-coded forecasts can let you know when the air is unhealthy in your community. Sources include local radio and TV weather reports, newspapers and online.
  1. Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. When the air is bad, walk indoors in a shopping mall or gym or use an exercise machine. Limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.
  1. Always avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. Even when air quality forecasts are green, the vehicles on busy highways can create high pollution levels up to one-third a mile away.
  1. Use less energy in your home. Generating electricity and other sources of energy creates air pollution. By reducing energy use, you can help improve air quality, curb greenhouse gas emissions, encourage energy independence and save money.
  1. Encourage your child’s school to reduce exposure to school bus emissions. To keep exhaust levels down, schools should not allow school buses to idle outside of their buildings.
  1. Walk, bike or carpool. Combine trips. Use buses, subways, light rail systems, commuter trains or other alternatives to driving your car.
  1. Don’t burn wood or trash. Burning firewood and trash are among the major sources of particle pollution (soot) in many parts of the country.
  1. Use hand-powered or electric lawn care equipment rather than gasoline-powered. Old two-stroke engines like lawnmowers and leaf or snow blowers often have no pollution control devices. They can pollute the air even more than cars, though engines sold since 2011 are cleaner.
  1. Don’t allow anyone to smoke indoors and support measures to make all public places tobacco-free.
  1. Get involved. Start by checking out our Healthy Air Campaign which has more information about what you can do.