Scientific review shows cost-effective actions achieve quick results for cleaner air and improved health

Reductions in air pollution yield fast and dramatic impacts on health, as well as decreases in all-cause morbidity according to a research paper, Health Benefits of Air Pollution Reduction, and corresponding report Clean Air Now, published today. Co-authored by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) and the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance (The Union is a founding member of both organisations), the research shows that reducing air pollution, a serious yet preventable risk factor to human health, has significant positive impacts on health outcomes – and interventions are cost-effective.

As representatives from more than 200 countries convene in Madrid from 2-13 December for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25), the authors are calling on policy-makers and political leaders to urgently adopt interventions to reduce air pollution and achieve health improvements for people worldwide. 

“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive,” said lead author of the report and Executive Director of FIRS, Dr Dean Schraufnagel.

“Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes following reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”             

The paper shows that health benefits were seen from both national and locally-based interventions, tackling ambient or indoor air pollution, and in countries with where GDP is high or low, without reducing economic growth.

The reviews looked at interventions that have reduced air pollution at its source. Researchers looked for outcomes and the time taken to achieve those outcomes in several settings, finding that the improvements in health were striking. Examples of interventions which had significant impact include: The Clean Air Act of 1970 in the USA; a ban of coal sales in Dublin in 1990; a restriction on the sulphur content of fuel oil used for power plants and motor vehicles in Hong Kong in 1990; the national smoking ban in Ireland in 2004; and a whole host of local-level interventions such as factory closures and planned reduction of traffic-related pollution during the Olympic Games in several host cities.

Discussions around health and climate change also featured at the 50th Union World Conference on Lung Health, held late October in Hyderabad. A plenary session devoted to the study of the harmful effects of air pollution highlighted that air pollution kills 6.5 million people every year, three times more than AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria combined. Another session, A breathless child: calling time on deaths from asthma and pneumonia, explored current information on the diagnosis, treatment and challenges associated with these two diseases, with a specific focus on low- and medium-income country settings. (Live streams of both sessions are available.)

As the Union World Conference drew to a close in Hyderabad, reports that air pollution in the north of India had "reached unbearable levels" were covered by the world’s media. The peak in pollution levels exacerbated by burning crop stubble, vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, and construction dust caused Delhi to declare a public health emergency. Later in the month, the 10th Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), focused on the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change. With an inexorable link between climate change and air quality, and a high incidence of dangerous levels of air pollution, both events further highlight the need for practical interventions that reduce air pollution at source, such as the research published today.

Read the ‘Health Benefits of Air Pollution Reduction’ published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, and 'Clean Air Now’, an advocacy report based on the paper.