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Air pollution and health

Air pollution is now considered to be the world’s largest environmental health threat, accounting for 7 million deaths around the world every year. Air pollution causes and exacerbates a number of diseases, ranging from asthma to cancer, pulmonary illnesses and heart disease. Outdoor air pollution and particulate matter, one of its major components, have been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

In accordance with recent estimates by the World Health Organization, exposure to air pollution is thus a more important risk factor for major non-communicable diseases than previously thought. Air pollution is the largest contributor to the burden of disease from the environment.

The main substances affecting health are: nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), ozone and particulate matter with the latter – especially particulate matter below 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) – being of greatest concern, as these tiny particles penetrate deep into the lungs, affecting both the respiratory and vascular systems. Both extent and duration of the exposure influence health outcomes. 

In the European region, nearly every single individual is affected by air pollution with over 90% of citizens being exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are above WHO air quality guidelines. 

The impact of air pollution on human health is of growing concern as research unravels more links between a number of serious diseases among various age groups and air pollution (e.g. diabetes, neurodevelopment, pre-term birth, low weight birth,etc.) 

What we do

By reducing air pollution, the Convention tackles the world’s largest environmental health risk for non-communicable diseases and thus helps countries in preventing morbidity and premature mortality, one of the targets under Sustainable Development Goal 3 on good health and wellbeing. In addition to prevention, the task force on health aspects of air pollution assesses how long-range transboundary air pollution affects human health, and helps define priorities to guide future monitoring and abatement strategies. It also advises on monitoring and modelling activities to improve the quality of assessments. Its work is based on estimates of air pollution concentrations (particularly those derived by the Cooperative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of Long-range Transmission of Air Pollutants in Europe – EMEP), and on the results of hazard assessment carried out by WHO.