More than 92% of the world’s population is exposed to poor air quality. Air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for death and accounts for more than 5 million deaths each year globally. In honor of World Environment Day, we sat down with Dan Kass, Vice President of Environmental Health at Vital Strategies, for a Q&A on what can be done to advance clean air policies and reduce the deadly health harms of air pollution.
1. With majority of the world breathing unhealthy air, what are the short-term and long-term effects of exposure to air pollution?
The immediate effects of poor air quality are familiar: stinging eyes, coughing, trouble breathing, and worsening of chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma. But the most serious impacts are the result of inhaling tiny particulate matter over long periods of time. This can lead to noncommunicable diseases such as heart and lung disease, cancer and diabetes—a link we highlighted at a recent World Health Assembly side event co-hosted with the NCD Alliance. Air pollution can also cause low birthweight and harm children’s physical and cognitive development. The global economic costs are conservatively estimated at $255 billion in lost labor income and over $5 trillion in welfare losses.
2. Is air pollution increasing or decreasing?
It depends on where you are. On average, levels have decreased over the past 15 years throughout much of Europe and the Americas thanks to clean air policies. Levels have also decreased slightly in some parts of Asia, though South Asian countries like Nepal, India and Bangladesh have some of the worst air quality in the world. Air pollution is getting worse throughout much of Africa, and without significant changes in emissions standards, air quality will worsen as population and energy use grow.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face in air pollution?
One of the greatest misperceptions is that improving air quality is “too expensive.” Emissions controls and cleaner fuels may be more costly than doing nothing in the short term, but the cost of inaction is much greater when you consider the health and related social costs. And these higher costs of poor air quality are usually borne by governments and lower income families and communities. Air pollution represents a classic economic market failure because its true costs are externalized to entire populations.
4. How do public perceptions of air pollution affect policy?
The public tends to be misinformed about both the causes and the harms of air pollution. For a study released in March, called “Hazy Perceptions,” we reviewed more than 530,000 social media and news items in 11 South and Southeast Asian countries over three years. We found
that people focused on the short-term personal effects of visible pollution, such as coughing, but rarely discussed the long-term effects, like cancer and heart disease. Public discourse doesn’t focus on the most important sources of pollutants, either: household fuels, power plants and waste burning are major sources, but these draw less public concern than sources such as vehicle emissions. People must understand the true sources and harms in order to demand appropriate action from polluters and policymakers.
5. What steps can governments and cities take to tackle this problem?
The most effective strategies involve addressing leading sources of pollution, and that means each locality has to identify its sources. In New York City, transitioning to cleaner heating fuels resulted in substantial air quality and health benefits. In Hong Kong, city officials regulated emissions from marine vessels. Elsewhere, policymakers are addressing agricultural burning, household energy, traffic pollution and industrial sources. In each case, officials correctly identified key sources of air pollution, addressed them via policy and enforcement solutions, and engaged the public to build support for their actions.
6. What tools and resources do they need to respond to this issue?
Improving air quality requires regulation and legislation—it’s not a problem that will be solved by changing individual behavior or waiting for market forces to respond. Governments at the national, regional and city levels need to identify the sources of air pollution and use proven strategies to address them.
7. How is Vital Strategies working to reduce air pollution and advance clean air measures?
We’re addressing air pollution on several fronts. In 2018, we launched a new Urban Air Quality Innovations initiative to help cities rapidly and economically enhance and use air pollution exposure data to identify and address key sources. We’re also working closely with technical experts and government and civil society partners in India, Indonesia and Ethiopia to develop a guide to help cities improve the management of their air quality. We are conducting formative research, including the media study I mentioned, to understand and influence the public’s attitudes towards air quality, their exposure to air pollution and their understanding of its health effects, and to inform future communication campaigns. We’ve also launched Inspire: Health Advocates for Clean Air, a coalition that mobilizes clinicians, public health professionals and organizations across the globe to advocate for aggressive clean air policies.
For more information on Vital Strategies’ Environmental Health division, visit: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/environmental-health/