By Thuku Kariuki and Daniel Furnad

The effects of air pollution are felt throughout the world. In low-income countries it is often caused by emissions from unclean cooking fuel, such as charcoal. In more developed nations, it is car exhaust that is making the air dangerous to breathe. In many places, burning coal as energy resources has negative effects on all levels of the population.

The fifth annual edition of the State of Global Air (SoGA), not only catalogues the causes, but presents dramatic evidence of their cumulative effects. 8.1 million people die annually from the effects of air pollution. More than 700,000 of these are children, unable to protect themselves, unaware of the threat. And it’s not just killing us. It is leaving many with debilitating diseases, exacerbating such conditions as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The report conducted by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), an independent U.S.-based nonprofit research organization, and supported by the United Nations Children’s agency, UNICEF covers 200 countries and territories, nearly the entire globe, providing a complete look at air quality and hazards. It finds four major pollutant varieties that are threatening our health: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), household air pollution, ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Fine particulate matter accounts for 7.8 million of the deaths associated with air pollution. Half a million children consume these from indoor cooking with polluting fuels, mostly in Asia and Africa. These tiny particles, measuring less than 2 and a half micrometres in diameter, are so small they remain in the lungs and can easily enter the bloodstream. This affects many organ systems, increases the risk for non-communicable diseases, and can affect brain development. It is a threat to all of us, but particularly to those least able to protect themselves.

“This new report offers a stark reminder of the significant impacts air pollution has on human health, with far too much of the burden borne by young children, older populations, and low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr. Pallavi Pant, HEI’s Head of Global Health who supervised the release of the SoGA report.

“Despite progress in maternal and child health, every day almost 2000 children under five years die because of health impacts linked to air pollution,” added UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kitty van der Heijden, who urged government action from around the globe.

While we normally think that the effects of climate change are felt most frequently in tropical areas, many in the US would be surprised at the findings of this report. In 2021, long-term exposure to ozone contributed to an estimated 489,518 deaths globally, including 14,000 ozone-related COPD deaths in the US, higher than other high-income countries. Nitrogen oxide, increased by global warming, will only bring a higher death toll as it is produced from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass in sectors such as transportation, residential homes, coal-burning power plants, industrial activities, and wildfires.

Developed countries would seem in the best position to take action on lowering air pollution. But somewhat surprisingly, dramatic results have been seen in less developed areas, where the conversion to cleaner cooking has been promoted. Since 2000, the death rate linked to children under five has dropped by 53 per cent. Along with cleaner burning fuels, access to healthcare, nutrition, and better awareness about the harms associated with exposure to household air pollution, have contributed to the dramatic decrease.

Individual countries have implemented stricter air quality policies, leading to the overall lowering of air pollution. In others, air pollution monitoring networks have contributed to awareness and setting off alarms where action is needed.

Hybrid and electric vehicles are also having the desired effect on air pollution. These impact public health in unseen and measurable ways. But mainly they show us that humans can effect air quality, through institutional action that is affordable, and actually improve our quality of life.

The President of the HEI, Dr. Elena Kraft underlined the positive effects intended from such research. “We hope our State of Global Air report provides both the information and the inspiration for change,” she commented.

“Air pollution has enormous implications for health. We know that improving air quality and global public health is practical and achievable.”

Whether in a kitchen in Africa, at a shopping mall in the USA or visiting relatives in a large town in Asia, risks from air pollution are real. But so are the solutions that can come from government, commercial enterprises or concerned individuals. It is our earth, our air, let’s clean it up!