What are the health impacts of air pollution?
Air pollution causes or aggravates numerous diseases and health issues. Some of the most obvious are those associated with the lungs: asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. But even short-term exposure to air pollution can also increase risk of heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to higher rates of hospital admission and mortality for heart failure and stroke. This puts a significant burden on healthcare systems, not to mention patients and their families.
Risks are magnified among vulnerable groups – minorities, older people, children and people with pre-existing conditions. For pregnant women, pollutants can negatively affect a foetus and cause long-term health problems including congenital heart defects, obesity and predisposition to cardiovascular disease (CVD). Our knowledge of the impact of air pollution in utero is limited, but it has been shown that the ‘dose’ of pollution experienced by the foetus may be relatively higher than that of the mother.
Medical advances have led to more people surviving cardiovascular events and living with CVD, such as hypertension. This means a vast number of people will be affected if governments do not take action to combat air pollution.
What can be done?
Many people – including healthcare professionals and policymakers – often fail to appreciate the cardiovascular health risks of air pollution. The respiratory effects are easier to identify, but long-term exposure to air pollution can also have serious cardiovascular health implications. Although awareness of CVD is growing, the impacts of pollution are still not widely known.
There is clearly a case for change, from both a health and an environmental perspective. But when it comes to ambient air pollution, policymakers and leaders across a range of sectors have a duty to protect citizens. Even modest improvements and incremental change in air quality can lead to increased life expectancy over short timeframes. Whether it’s by reducing traffic, planning healthier cities and developments, passing anti-smoking legislation or regulating industry, there is much that can be done.
But too few countries meet WHO air quality guidelines and, all too often, there is not enough action at a national level. Air pollution control measures face countless barriers; increasing ‘green’ power infrastructure can be economically and politically challenging. Meanwhile, international treaties and national policies are often ‘toothless’ and end up being ignored. But there can be no doubt that this is a public health priority. Until policymakers act to overcome these obstacles, millions will continue to live in – and be harmed by – increasingly unhealthy environments.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.