by Jeni Miller
The evidence about the health impacts of air pollution just keeps growing. New studies increasingly show that exposure to even low levels of air pollution – if sustained over the long term – are associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer, and may have a role in diabetes and neurological disease, and that early life exposures can have lifelong impacts.
Today is World Asthma Day. We’ve long known that bad air days can be a misery for people with asthma, triggering asthma episodes that restrict their activity and up their bronchodilator use, or much worse, land them in the emergency room. More recently, we’ve learned that air pollution is associated with increased incidence of asthma – pollutants can trigger the onset of asthma in people who may be predisposed but who did not have it before. New-onset asthma is associated with air pollution exposure in utero and infancy, childhood, and adulthood. In addition, pre- and postnatally, and between the ages of 10-18 when the lungs go through a significant growth period, exposure to air pollution adversely affects lung development and lung function – with lifetime consequences.
Air pollutants, NOx, SOx, and particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5 and ultrafine particulates), have all been implicated, as have airborne toxic chemicals, and, as a group, traffic-related pollutants. The mechanisms by which these pollutants cause or exacerbate asthma range from increasing inflammation in the lungs, to causing bronchoconstriction, to increasing sensitivity to asthma-triggering allergens like pollen. For a time, asthma had been more prevalent in the developed than in the developing world, but emerging economies are catching up due, in significant part, to factors related to modernization and urbanization. The World Health Organization estimates that 235 million people worldwide now suffer from asthma, making it a major global non-communicable disease.
Many sources of air pollution that affect asthma also produce greenhouse gases. This compounds the impacts — higher temperatures contribute to the creation of smog; and longer growing seasons as well as higher levels of CO2 make ragweed and other allergens significantly more productive and virulent.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And that’s why on World Asthma Day in 2017, the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) launched Unmask My City, a global initiative led by doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, promoting practical solutions and tangible city-level policy changes that will drive a clear, downward global trend in urban air pollution by 2030.
GCHA is an alliance oforganizations dedicated to reducing the health impacts of climate change, and ensuring that the health co-benefits of climate change mitigation are maximized. Alliance members launched Unmask My Cityin 11 cities on five continents, to push for the health benefits we know are possible if we tackle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions together. In London, Unmask My City is led by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, as part of its ongoing work for cleaner air in London and the UK.
Health professionals around the world are calling for safe, clean air for our patients, our communities, and the climate. Concretely this means calling for city and national policies that will clean up our transportation systems and our energy systems.
Solutions exist. Transportation infrastructure that supports active transportation such as walking and cycling, includes robust and clean-fueled public transportation, and that shifts motorized transport to electric vehicles, offers cleaner air while mitigating climate change. The same is true for moving away from fossil fuels to power and heat our buildings, homes and businesses, through effective combinations of energy efficiency and shifting to renewables.
The potential benefits go beyond better health. A recent study found that if countries achieved greenhouse gas emissions targets needed to keep global warming below 2°C, economic savings due to the reduced health impacts of air pollution would more than offset the costs. In China and India, even the more aggressive mitigation required to keep warming below 1.5°C would produce a combined net benefit of US$3.6-10.7 trillion.
Asthma is a miserable, life threatening, and sometimes terrifying disease – ask any parent who has watched his or her child gasping for breath. Cleaning up our air would not only reduce the impact of asthma on the lives of those who already have it, it would prevent new-onset asthma, too. This World Asthma Day, let’s all push for the clean air policies that can improve life for asthma sufferers, improve health for all of us, and contribute to tackling climate change. What are we waiting for?
Jeni Miller is the Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
Original article posted in UKHACC Website.
GCCA is collaborating with the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) and its partners to amplify the call for clean air by health professionals in cities around the world. From sustainable urban transport and renewable energy alternatives to coal-fired power generation, this initiative aims to drive rapid improvements in the health of billions of people as well as for the global climate.