Air pollution: The new threat to human health?

This story is brought to you by China Airlines.

Written by Sara Wong, CNN

The world is in the midst of an air pollution crisis. As the air quality in major cities around the world continue to deteriorate, health experts are warning that poor quality air can cause a whole slew of problems.

Air pollution, combined with excess weight, increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization estimates that more than four million deaths could be prevented if the air we breathe was as clean as the air in the Great Barrier Reef.

But according to the new book Climate Change Impact on Health , published by the Royal College of Physicians, air pollution is now the most important threat to the health of people around the world.

The series analyzes the impact of climate change and climate impacts on various diseases and health conditions.

What we know

“I think there are indications that it is now at levels that are seriously affecting human health, putting people at risk,” said Prof. Malcolm Clark of the Royal College of Physicians. “As we see less obviously quite damaging pollutants, things like particulate matter — which is often dirty — beginning to penetrate deep into people’s lungs, it’s clear we are now facing a greater health risk than we thought we did.”

For example, air pollution is believed to be the main driver of lung cancer, according to a study published in 2016 in Science Advances . More than half of the more than 2.4 million cancer deaths from all sources each year occur due to air pollution, according to the WHO.

“Particulate matter is being linked to increased risk of lung cancer,” said Clark. “You are inhaling particles about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. They can enter the deepest part of the lungs and the body and as they get inside that, they change the chemistry of the body, affecting a broad range of diseases and conditions, from heart disease and stroke to chronic lung disease.”

The crisis of “stove failure”

To illustrate the problem of particulate matter in the lungs, Clark points to a study published in 2014 in the journal “Nature.” It examined the relationship between the presence of particulate matter and long-term mortality in communities in the United States.

Researchers found that a 10% increase in particulate matter concentrations correlated with an 11% increased chance of death among people who have heart disease.

Clark also warned about the impact of changes in climate on lung health.

“As temperature increases and it gets warmer, we also run the risk of more severe winters,” he said. “We know from laboratory studies, and experiments in the real world, that when temperatures go up, the pollen particles that we inhale, and the trees they grow in, develop more easily, they enter the lungs at a deeper level.”

The author of the book, Prof. Paul Kelton of the Department of International Health, says people are increasingly realizing just how bad air pollution is.

“(There are) lots of signs we are doing something about this. New products, new technology, new ways of capturing air pollution (are being developed),” he said. “There are huge amounts of research that are going on to try and find effective ways of controlling the problem, and that’s led to success in China and India.”

Kelton said there are now more people concerned about the risk of air pollution than there is concern about other health hazards.

“People are paying very close attention to air pollution — particularly in emerging markets, but now in the West as well. There is an upsurge in awareness of the problem and people are very worried,” he said.

“My sense is that one of the things that has underpinned that upsurge in awareness is attention to the forthcoming COP21 (international climate conference), in Paris in November. The thing that’s going to be crucial is the large amounts of money that will be put into tackling this — $100 billion per year from 2020.”

Leave a Comment