What are the health risks of air pollution?
The negative impact of air pollution on our health is indisputable. Worldwide, outdoor air pollution alone is responsible for the morbidity and mortality associated with 29% of lung cancer, 17% of acute lower respiratory infection, 24% of stroke, 25% of ischaemic heart disease and 43% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This amounts to 4.2 million deaths worldwide from outdoor air pollution, with a further 3.8 million deaths attributed to indoor air pollution.
Short-term effects of exposure to air pollution include aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness, added stress to heart and lungs and damaged cells in the respiratory system. This is especially relevant to people with pre-existing conditions. Air pollution has also been linked with the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma. Senior author of a study conducted into the casual link between diabetes and air pollution at the Washington University School of Medicine, Dr. Ziyad Al Aly, was quoted as saying: “Our research shows a significant link between air pollution and diabetes globally. We found an increased risk, even at low levels of air pollution currently considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the WHO”.
In the UK specifically, it is estimated that air pollution is responsible for 40,000 deaths each year and 20,000 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases alone. This is based on research conducted by the ‘Royal College of Physicians’ and the ‘Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’. If pollution levels are to remain the same, ‘Public Health England’ has suggested that there could be around 2.5 million new cases of coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other health conditions by 2035. However, based on modelling conducted by ‘King’s College London’ and ‘UK 100’ has estimated the following effects on nine UK cities:
- Living near a busy road in London may contribute to 230 hospital admissions for strokes every year.
- Living near a busy road may stunt lung growth in children by 5% in London and 14.1% in Oxford.
- In Birmingham, the risk of cardiac arrest outside of the hospital is 2.3% higher on high pollution days.
- Higher air pollution days are responsible for 43 more people going to hospital for respiratory disease in Southampton, 68 in Bristol and 98 in Liverpool.
Along with the cost to human life, air pollution also has a large financial cost. A progress conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons in 2018 estimated a total social cost of £22.6 billion every year. In addition, air pollution is also responsible for over 6 million sick days a year causing huge disruptions to the economy.
There is increasing evidence to support that the burden of disease from air pollution is expected to significantly increase.