Air pollution

Air pollution is the contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases and is an important source of morbidity and mortality. 

Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that almost all of the global population (99%) breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. WHO is supporting countries to address air pollution. 

From smog hanging over cities to smoke inside the home, air pollution poses a major threat to health and climate. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause millions of premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

Fact about Air pollution

  • 3.8 million deaths every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels
  • 9 out of 10 people worldwide live in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits
  • 4.2 million deaths every year occur as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution
  • Around 2.6 billion people cook using polluting open fires or simple stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal.
  • Each year, close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.
  • Household air pollution causes noncommunicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.
  • Close to half of deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 years of age are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.

Household air pollution and health

Around 2.6 billion people still cook using solid fuels (such as wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) and kerosene in open fires and inefficient stoves. Most of these people are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries.

These cooking practices are inefficient, and use fuels and technologies that produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

Impacts on health

Over 3.8 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking. Among these 3.8 million deaths:

  • 27% are due to pneumonia
  • 18% from stroke
  • 27% from ischaemic heart disease
  • 20% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • 8% from lung cancer.

Pneumonia

Exposure to household air pollution almost doubles the risk for childhood pneumonia and is responsible for 45% of all pneumonia deaths in children less than 5 years old. Household air pollution is also risk for acute lower respiratory infections (pneumonia) in adults, and contributes to 28% of all adult deaths to pneumonia.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

One in four or 25% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adults in low- and middle-income countries are due to exposure to household air pollution. Women exposed to high levels of indoor smoke are more than twice as likely to suffer from COPD than women who use cleaner fuels and technologies. Among men (who already have a heightened risk of COPD due to their higher rates of smoking), exposure to household air pollution nearly doubles that risk.

Stroke

Twelve percent of all deaths due to stroke can be attributed to the daily exposure to household air pollution arising from cooking with solid fuels and kerosene.

Ischaemic heart disease

Approximately 11% of all deaths due to ischaemic heart disease, accounting for over a million premature deaths annually, can be attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Lung cancer

Approximately 17% of lung cancer deaths in adults are attributable to exposure to carcinogens from household air pollution caused by cooking with kerosene or solid fuels like wood, charcoal or coal. The risk for women is higher, due to their role in food preparation.

Other health impacts and risks

More generally, small particulate matter and other pollutants in indoor smoke inflame the airways and lungs, impairing immune response and reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

There is also evidence of links between household air pollution and low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.

Mortality from ischaemic heart disease and stroke are also affected by risk factors such as high blood pressure, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and smoking. Some other risks for childhood pneumonia include suboptimal breastfeeding, underweight and second-hand smoke. For lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, active smoking and second-hand tobacco smoke are also main risk factors.

Read Also: 16 Practical Health Tips for 2022

Impacts on health equity, development and climate change

Without a substantial policy change, the total number of people lacking access to clean fuels and technologies will remain largely unchanged by 2030 (International Energy Agency, 2017 (1)) and therefore hinder the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

  • Fuel gathering increases the risk of musculoskeletal damage, consumes considerable time for women and children, limits other productive activities (such as income generation) and takes children away from school. In less secure environments, women and children are at risk of injury and violence during fuel gathering.
  • Black carbon (sooty particles) and methane emitted by inefficient stove combustion are powerful climate change pollutants.
  • Many of the fuels and technologies used by households for cooking, heating and lighting present safety risks. The ingestion of kerosene is the leading cause of childhood poisonings, and a large fraction of the severe burns and injuries occurring in low- and middle-income countries are linked to household energy use for cooking, heating and/or lighting.
  • The lack of access to electricity for 1 billion people (many of whom then use kerosene lamps for lighting) exposes households to very high levels of fine particulate matter. The use of polluting lighting fuels introduces other health risks, such as burns, injuries, poisonings, and constrains other opportunities for health and development, like studying or engaging in small crafts and trades, which require adequate lighting.

CC: WHO

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