(Editor’s note: And, yet another opportunity presents itself to commit to a healthier-air, clearer-sky environment).
Air pollution is responsible for half a million premature deaths annually in the WHO European Region, primarily due to noncommunicable diseases, such as ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On this International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, 7 September, WHO/Europe is calling to step up action “together for clean air”, highlighting the urgent need for stronger partnerships, increased investment, and shared responsibility for overcoming air pollution.
For 2019, 569 000 premature deaths can be attributed to ambient air pollution, and 154 000 deaths to household air pollution in the Region. Air pollution is transboundary both in its impacts and the responses needed to tackle it. It is the contamination of the air we breathe, indoors or outdoors, by any chemical, physical or biological agent that is potentially threatening to human and ecosystem health. It is also essentially a man-made health burden, as the primary sources of pollution include the energy sector, transport sector, domestic cooking and heating, waste burning, industrial activities and agriculture, and, increasingly, wildfires during the summer.
Cross-border response to tackle the health burden of air pollution
Countries of the Region gathered last July at the 7th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Hungary and adopted the Budapest Declaration, which prioritizes urgent, wide-ranging action on health challenges related to the triple environmental crisis of climate change, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss. As they recognize that the health sector is key in working “together for clean air”, countries have reconfirmed their commitments to tackle air pollution, as well as to strengthen governance, invest in human resources, and advance knowledge and tools for action.
In addition, measures taken to tackle the triple environmental crisis often support the mitigation of multiple environmental challenges. For example, almost all efforts to improve air quality can enhance climate change mitigation, and climate change mitigation efforts can, in turn, improve air quality. Reducing or phasing out fossil and biomass fuel combustion will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and health-relevant air pollutants. By promoting environmental sustainability hand-in-hand with public health protection we can make significant steps towards mitigating climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Tools and mechanisms to tackle air pollution in the Region
Policy-makers have a wide range of tools to design and implement the policies needed to ensure improved air quality. For example, the WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) provide clear evidence of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health at even lower concentrations than previously understood. The guidelines recommend air quality levels to protect the health of populations by reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change. The AQGs provide robust, evidence-informed guidance to protect public health from air pollution. They can be used as an evidence-informed reference tool to help decision-makers set legally binding standards and goals for air quality management at international, national and local levels.
Additional materials are also at countries’ disposal. Protecting health through ambient air quality management: a resource package for the WHO European Region is a package intended to support the implementation of the AQGs and includes tools for developing air quality policies, standards and plans; monitoring and modelling air quality; assessing the health impacts of air pollution; addressing emission reductions; developing communication and capacity-building strategies; and training courses.
In addition, the Joint Task Force on the Health Aspects of Air Pollution, established in 1997 within the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, works to quantify 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. The WHO’s European Centre for Environment and Health chairs the Joint Task Force, which comprises experts designated by countries that are parties to the Convention.
To quantify the health impacts of air pollution and assist countries in policy-making, WHO has developed several tools coupled with capacity-building activities to facilitate their uptake.
- WHO/Europe’s software tool, AirQ+, performs calculations that allow quantification of the health impacts of exposure to air pollution, including estimates of the reduction in life expectancy for the most significant air pollutants.
- CLIMAQ-H (formerly CaRBonH) is software that helps assess the links between air quality, health and economic gains from climate change mitigation. It can be used as a mechanism to determine the outcome of climate-driven policies and to promote decision-making in settings where there is limited data availability.
Working across borders and boundaries between sectors and galvanizing action that operates beyond silos will help reduce air pollution, leverage finance and investments towards air quality measures and solutions, and provide health benefits. This International Day of Clean Air for blue skies calls on everyone, from governments and corporations to civil society and individuals, to come #TogetherForCleanAir.
Source: “International Day of Clean Air for blue skies: Stronger partnerships, more investments and shared responsibility needed to tackle air pollution,” Sept. 7, 2023 World Health Organization news release.
Corresponding, connected home-page-featured image: Ivan Anderson (Centennial Carillon, BYU, Provo, Utah)