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Health and air pollution

Air pollution is a public health emergency. Every year, millions of adults and children die prematurely.

A global health emergency

Air pollution is one of the biggest public health issues we face globally, and it’s getting worse.

Most of the world’s population live in places that exceed the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline limits. 

Invisible particles penetrate cells and organs in our bodies – our lungs, heart, blood and brain. This leads to millions suffering with diseases like asthma, strokes, heart attacks, cancer and dementia.

Babies, children, older people and those with existing health conditions are most severely affected by polluted air. 90% of deaths caused by air pollution are in low- and middle-income countries.

Millions die from air pollution each year

Every year, millions of adults and children die prematurely. Over 8 million people die each year as a result of air pollution. It’s the second leading cause of deaths from non-communicable diseases after smoking.

People who breathe polluted air have a greater risk of developing respiratory or infectious diseases. These conditions make people more susceptible to COVID-19. In Italy, the risk of dying from the virus was almost three times higher in the most polluted regions.

Air pollution is one the most urgent and deadly global challenges. And the problem is getting worse. By 2060, air pollution could cause up up to 9 million early deaths each year. The OECD and World Bank project the annual welfare costs associated with these premature deaths will cost the global economy $18–25 trillion.

But there is a clear solution that will improve the health of people, the planet and the economy.

You have to make the health consequences more visible; people need to recognise the risks they are facing. In China and elsewhere, dramatic changes in air quality came only after the public perceived risks to their own health and started calling for government action.

Jose Siri – Wellcome Trust

Clean air leads to healthier lives

Better air quality has a positive impact on public health almost immediately. By improving air quality:

  • fewer people will develop chronic health conditions, such as asthma, lung cancer, or high blood pressure which can lead to heart disease, stroke and dementia
  • people who live with chronic conditions, especially lung conditions, will suffer fewer symptoms and enjoy better quality of life
  • fewer people will suffer from acute illnesses, such as pneumonia or COVID-19
  • fewer people will go to hospital, reducing pressure on health services and health workers
  • the number of premature births and deaths due to air pollution will decrease.

Funding for air quality initiatives does not match the severity of the problem. As outlined in The State of Global Air Quality Funding, less than 1% of official development funding, and less than 0.1% of philanthropic foundation funding, is spent on air quality projects. Given the huge human impact of air pollution, there is an urgent need and opportunity for health funders to invest in air quality.

Our work on health and air pollution

Clean Air Fund partners with organisations around the world to tackle dirty air and improve public health:

  • We support health professionals to advocate for clean air. In the run up to COP26, we supported medics from the UK’s leading children’s hospitals to campaign for clean air through the ‘Ride for their Lives’ bicycle ride from London to Glasgow. The health professionals presented a letter to governments demanding action on greenhouse gases and pollution.

Health workers tackling air pollution

The healthcare community has a history of effective action on major public health issues. Many healthcare providers see first hand the harmful effects of air pollution on patients. 

Health care providers can give information to patients about risks and reducing exposure. For example, 2,000 public health centres in Chattisgarh state in India put up posters on air pollution and health. Healthcare workers in St Ormond Street hospital in London ran a clean air campaign to reduce dirty air in the streets around their hospital. 

Health professionals can also facilitate the sharing of health data to governments, which can inform clean air policy. 

See more on Health

Engaging healthcare communities on air pollution

These briefings outline the best ways to engage healthcare professionals on the topic of air pollution, in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Mexico and the UK.

Personalising the health impacts of air pollution

This toolkit offers practical tips on how to best engage the public in the UK and Poland on the subject of air pollution.