Air pollution danger worse than previously thought warns UN health agency

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that the dangers posed by air pollution are far larger than previously thought as it called again for rapid global action in reducing what it described as one of the greatest hazards to human health.

Air pollution and indoor air quality

The warning was voiced at the recent meeting of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), held in Paris, France.

Health advocates were told that indoor air pollution had become the leading risk factor for “burden of disease” in South Asia while it was ranked second in Eastern, Central and Western Sub-Saharan Africa and third in Southeast Asia.

The estimations we have now tell us there are 3.5 million premature deaths every year caused by household air pollution, and 3.3 million death every year caused by outdoor air pollution,

Dr. Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of Public Health and Environment, told the meeting.

According to the UN News Centre, ground-level ozone pollution was estimated to cause an additionally 200,000 premature deaths every year, the agency said in a press release, which notes that “burden of disease” is a calculation based on years of life lost combined with years lived at less than full health.

Air pollution is becoming one of the biggest health issues we have in front of us at the moment,

Dr. Neira said.

The CCAC, whose partners include Member States and civil society health advocates, targets so-called short-lived climate pollutants, or SLCPs, as major culprits in the damage to health, as well as the cause of crop loss and climate change.  SLCPs that are harmful to human health are released through numerous sources ranging from diesel engine exhaust and smoke and soot from inefficient cook stoves to leakage and flaring from oil and natural gas production and emissions from solid waste disposal.

In a press statement marking the meeting, UNEP noted that fast action on SLCPs could “dramatically” reduce the number of annual deaths from air pollution. Efforts to lower black carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and engines were receiving “particularly strong attention” from the CCAC.

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Supreme Court may force Government to act on air pollution

A case brought against the government to force it to take action on air quality was heard by the UK Supreme Court of Justice in London last week on March 7.  The UK’s air-quality plans on nitrogen dioxide were challenged by campaign group ClientEarth in the Supreme Court.

Indoor air quality London

Image Credit: Wiktor Bubniak /

Defra faced accusations from environmental campaigners ClientEarth that it has failed to put sufficient measures in place to comply with EU air pollution limits at the day-long appeal hearing.  ClientEarth said it was “hopeful” of a judgement before Easter after its air quality case against Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was heard.

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Exposure to air pollutants during infancy can result in reduced lung function by school age

 Children who have lived in areas where there are increased concentrations of air pollutants during the first few years of their life have a greater risk of developing protracted lower airway obstruction symptoms and allergies. Children also risk having reduced lung function by the time they reach school age. These are the findings of new research that was presented recently at the Allergistämman (“Allergy Meeting”) event in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Indoor Air Quality in Schools 

Respiratory diseases are an important reason for ill health in children that can be caused or worsened by air pollutants. A new study conducted by the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm now indicates that exposure to air pollutants from road traffic during the first year of life increases the risk of protracted lower airway obstruction symptoms and allergies to outdoor allergens. Exposure also has a negative impact on the lung function of children four years old. Similar analyses were recently made in a follow-up study of children eight years old.

The results of the research indicated that children who were exposed the most to particles from road traffic during infancy had reduced lung function by the age of eight, corresponding to an average reduction of approximately 60 ml in the volume of exhaled air for one second (FEV1 ratio). The reduction in lung function was especially pronounced in children who were allergic to ordinary airborne allergens and food allergens, as well as in boys and children with asthma. For children who were exposed the most to particles, there was also an increased risk of suffering from a sharp reduction in lung function (more than a 20-percent reduction).

Previous research has indicated that children are extra sensitive to the negative effects of air pollutants and our study suggests that early exposure in life can be particularly harmful,

says Professor Göran Pershagen of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.  The study was presented recently in Sweden at Allergistämman 2012 (“Allergy Meeting 2012”) in Gothenburg at a seminar titled “Air Pollutants from Road Traffic and Allergies in Children” (Luftföreningar från vägtrafiken och allergi hos barn).

Read the full report here