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News / Comment

NEWS / Air pollution and climate change: a toxic relationship
Category: Health & Pharmaceuticals

Image: Mother and child on a high pollution day in Shanghai. Photo by David Leo Veksler (CC BY-SA 2.0).

By Caroline Fouvet

Each year, 600,000 children under five years old die because of air pollution. Central heating boilers, motor vehicles and industrial facilities are all significant contributors to dirty air. The problem is costing money and lives, especially in built up areas, and it may be further compounded by climate change.

Air pollution is often understood as a visible phenomenon – with dense smog engulfing urban centres. However, for the most part air pollutants do not form smog, and the tiny, makes them invisible. Vulnerable citizens, such as older people and children are extremely sensitive to air pollution and are often among its first victims.

The impact of air pollution on health places a substantial economic burden on society. In developing countries, for instance, air pollution results in premature deaths in the young working age population and in Sub-Saharan Africa, annual labour income losses induced by air pollution amount to 0.61% of GDP. In developed countries, the cost of sick days and emergency care caused by air pollution is considerable.


Compounded by climate change

Unless action is taken to reduce air pollution, the health impacts are likely to increase in severity, as the climate warms. Warmer temperatures can lead to an intensification of particulate concentrations at ground level, especially in cities. Heat and sunlight react with chemical particles such as diesel soot and gases such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air. This leads to the formation of ground-level ozone gas, both a harmful air pollutant and a component of smog.  The expected increased number of warmer and stagnant days will facilitate the phenomenon and worsen its impact on people’s health.

As ground-level ozone damages lungs and inflames airways, asthma and other respiratory diseases will likely increase. The resulting impact on people’s health is likely to be severely detrimental. In the US, it is projected that tens of thousands of additional ozone-related illnesses and premature deaths per year could occur by the 2030s. The US Environmental Protection Agency assessed that such impacts on air quality could reach US$ 13.6 billion.

Low-level ozone, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and sulphur dioxide emissions are also greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change and creating a noxious self-reinforcing cycle. Breaking this cycle will require concerted policy efforts to prevent particulate pollution, especially in built up areas. The resulting health benefits will undoubtedly save lives.