Air pollution’s health impact is immense. Bold, sustainable policies are needed to counter its deadly menace.
By POONAM KHETRAPAL SINGH
More than an environmental disaster, air pollution is one of the greatest threats to public health. Every year, exposure to air pollution kills at least 7 million people globally. Household air pollution, including from polluting cooking fuel and inefficient cookstoves, kills an estimated 3.8 million people. In addition, it is responsible for a range of debilitating conditions, from cardiovascular and heart disease to asthma and miscarriages.
The need to act is clear. So too is the path ahead – identify the source of the problem, prevent it from causing a problem and, in the meantime, protect those who are exposed to the problem, especially the most vulnerable. Importantly, given the many locally specific factors germane to air pollution, applying a one-size-fits-all approach will almost always have limited success. What works in one place may be less effective elsewhere. This calls for bold, dynamic and locally-rooted thinking that devises and implements customised and sustainable year-round interventions needed to address the issue.
The opportunities to drive real change are immense.
Take just one example: household air pollution. Across the WHO Southeast Asia Region (which includes India), an estimated 63 percent of all households are still exposed to unacceptable levels of pollution from the use of wood, animal dung and crop waste for domestic cooking. This causes around 1.5 million deaths region-wide every year, which are 100pc avoidable. By incentivising the switch to cleaner energy sources, much of that burden can be rapidly lifted.
Applying a one-size-fits-all approach (to fighting air pollution) will almost always have limited success.
What’s more, according to estimates, it will also decrease outdoor pollution by around 25pc.
Similarly, where large-scale or technical interventions are pursued, it is imperative that all sectors are on the same page, and that existing or new regulations are rigorously enforced. The creation of new green zones, for example, will have little benefit if the regulation of open burning and waste disposal is less than optimal. Likewise, advocacy discouraging the use of private vehicles will likely be ignored unless better public transport is accessible to all. The success or otherwise of any initiative is incumbent on cross-sector support.
To that end, the health sector has a crucial role to play, especially when it comes to advocating for action (both high-level and at the grassroots), and promoting evidence-based policy.
While the impact of air pollution on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems has been known for decades, there is increasing evidence that air pollution is associated with several other health problems, including autism and diabetes.
This is of deep concern. More innovative, intervention-based research is needed to better demonstrate the effectiveness of preventive action to ensure at-risk groups get the protection they need.
As the UN’s global BreatheLife campaign emphasises, while there are many ways to tackle air pollution, each of them starts with recognising its source and committing to take action.
Air pollution’s egregious impact on human health was highlighted during World Environment Day on June 5 – the United Nation’s principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of our environment.
WHO will continue to support efforts by each of the region’s countries to identify and implement the bold, sustainable policies needed to manage the threat and protect and secure health.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh is the World Health Organization’s regional director for Southeast Asia.