Air Pollution

Air pollution is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal.

Household (Indoor) Air Pollution and Health

Key facts

  • Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal.
  • Over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.
  • More than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.
  • 3.8 million pre-mature deaths annually from non-communicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Indoor air pollution and household energy

Around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. Most are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries.

Such inefficient cooking fuels and technologies produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

Impacts on health

4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels (2012 data). Among these deaths:

  • 12% are due to pneumonia
  • 34% from stroke
  • 26% from ischaemic heart disease
  • 22% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and
  • 6% from lung cancer.

Impacts on health equity, development and climate change

Without a substantial change in policy, the total number of people relying on solid fuels will remain largely unchanged by 2030 (World Bank, 2010). The use of polluting fuels also poses a major burden on sustainable development.

  • Fuel gathering consumes considerable time for women and children, limiting other productive activities (e.g. income generation) and taking children away from school. In less secure environments, women and children are at risk of injury and violence during fuel gathering.
  • Black carbon (sooty particles) and methane emitted by inefficient stove combustion are powerful climate change pollutants.
  • The lack of access to electricity for at least 1.2 billion people (many of whom then use kerosene lamps for lighting) creates other health risks, e.g. burns, injuries and poisonings from fuel ingestion, as well as constraining other opportunities for health and development, e.g. studying or engaging in small crafts and trades, which require adequate lighting.

Ambient (Outdoor) Air Pollution and Health

Key facts

  • Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.
  • The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population will be, both long- and short-term.
  • The "WHO Air quality guidelines" provide an assessment of health effects of air pollution and thresholds for health-harmful pollution levels.
  • Ambient (outdoor air pollution) in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.
  • Some 88% of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest number in the WHO Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions.
  • Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of urban outdoor air pollution.
  • Reducing outdoor emissions from household coal and biomass energy systems, agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities (e.g. charcoal production) would reduce key rural and peri-urban air pollution sources in developing regions.
  • Reducing outdoor air pollution also reduces emissions of CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon particles and methane, thus contributing to the near- and long-term mitigation of climate change.
  • In addition to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke is a serious health risk for some 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes with biomass fuels and coal.

Ambient (outdoor air pollution) in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide per year in 2012; this mortality is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 10 microns or less in diameter (PM10), which cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers.

People living in low- and middle-income countries disproportionately experience the burden of outdoor air pollution with 88% (of the 3.7 million premature deaths) occurring in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest burden in the WHO Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. The latest burden estimates reflect the very significant role air pollution plays in cardiovascular illness and premature deaths – much more so than was previously understood by scientists.

Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand action by cities, as well as national and international policymakers in sector like transport, energy waste management, buildings and agriculture.