Tackle air pollution with these measures

By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia

Air pollution’s health impact is immense. Bold, sustainable policies are needed to counter its deadly menace

Air pollution is more than an environmental disaster, it is one of the greatest threats to health. Every year, exposure to air pollution kills at least 7 million people globally. Household air pollution, including from polluting cooking fuel and inefficient cookstoves, kills an estimated 3.8 million. In addition, air pollution is responsible for a range of debilitating conditions, from cardiovascular and heart diseases to asthma and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

The need to act is clear. So too is the path ahead — identify the source of the problem, prevent it from causing a problem and, in the meantime, protect those who are exposed to the problem, especially the most vulnerable. Importantly, given the many locally specific factors germane to air pollution, applying a one-size-fits-all approach will almost always have limited success. What works in one place may be less effective elsewhere. This calls for bold, dynamic and locally-rooted thinking that devises and implements customised and sustainable year-round interventions needed to address the issue.

While the impact of air pollution on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems has been known for decades, there is increasing evidence that air pollution is associated with several other health problems, including autism and diabetes.

The opportunities to drive real change are immense.

Take just one example: household air pollution. Across the WHO South-East Asia Region (which includes India), an estimated 63% of all households are still exposed to unacceptable levels of pollution from the use of wood, animal dung and crop waste for domestic cooking. This causes around 1.5 million deaths region-wide every year, each of which are 100% avoidable. By incentivising the switch to cleaner energy sources, much of that burden can be rapidly lifted.

What’s more, according to estimates, it will also decrease outdoor pollution by around 25%.

Similarly, where large-scale or technical interventions are pursued, it is imperative that all sectors are on the same page, and that existing or new regulations are rigorously enforced. The creation of new green-zones, for example, will have little benefit if the regulation of open burning and waste disposal is less than optimal. Likewise, advocacy discouraging the use of private vehicles will likely be ignored unless better public transport is accessible to all. The success or otherwise of any initiative is incumbent on cross-sector support.

To that end, the health sector has a crucial role to play, especially when it comes to advocating for action (both high-level and at the grassroots), as well as promoting evidence-based policy.

While the impact of air pollution on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems has been known for decades, there is increasing evidence that air pollution is associated with several other health problems, including autism and diabetes.

This is of deep concern. More innovative, intervention-based research is needed to better demonstrate the effectiveness of preventive action to ensure at-risk groups get the protection they need.

As the UN’s global BreatheLife campaign emphasizes, while there are many ways to tackle air pollution, each of them starts with recognizing its source and committing to take action.

That is an important point, and one to reflect on as we mark World Environment Day and highlight air pollution’s egregious impact on human health. As the UN’s global BreatheLife campaign emphasizes, while there are many ways to tackle air pollution, each of them starts with recognizing its source and committing to take action. WHO will continue to support each of the region’s countries identify and implement the bold, sustainable policies needed to manage the threat and protect and secure health.

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