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  • Published: 17 June 2020

Half the world’s population are exposed to increasing air pollution

  • G. Shaddick   ORCID: 1 ,
  • M. L. Thomas 2 ,
  • P. Mudu 3 ,
  • G. Ruggeri 3 &
  • S. Gumy 3  

npj Climate and Atmospheric Science volume  3 , Article number:  23 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

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Air pollution is high on the global agenda and is widely recognised as a threat to both public health and economic progress. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.2 million deaths annually can be attributed to outdoor air pollution. Recently, there have been major advances in methods that allow the quantification of air pollution-related indicators to track progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and that expand the evidence base of the impacts of air pollution on health. Despite efforts to reduce air pollution in many countries there are regions, notably Central and Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, in which populations continue to be exposed to increasing levels of air pollution. The majority of the world’s population continue to be exposed to levels of air pollution substantially above WHO Air Quality Guidelines and, as such, air pollution constitutes a major, and in many areas, increasing threat to public health.


In 2016, the WHO estimated that 4.2 million deaths annually could be attributed to ambient (outdoor) fine particulate matter air pollution, or PM 2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 μm in diameter) 1 . PM 2.5 comes from a wide range of sources, including energy production, households, industry, transport, waste, agriculture, desert dust and forest fires and particles can travel in the atmosphere for hundreds of kilometres and their chemical and physical characteristics may vary greatly over time and space. The WHO developed Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) to offer guidance for reducing the health impacts of air pollution. The first edition, the WHO AQG for Europe, was published in 1987 with a global update (in 2005) reflecting the increased scientific evidence of the health risks of air pollution worldwide and the growing appreciation of the global scale of the problem 2 . The current WHO AQG states that annual mean concentration should not exceed 10 μg/m 3  2 .

The adoption and implementation of policy interventions have proved to be effective in improving air quality 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 . There are at least three examples of enforcement of long-term policies that have reduced concentration of air pollutants in Europe and North America: (i) the Clean Air Act in 1963 and its subsequent amendments in the USA; (ii) the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) with protocols enforced since the beginning of the 1980s in Europe and North America 8 ; and (iii) the European emission standards passed in the European Union in the early 1990s 9 . However, between 1960 and 2009 concentrations of PM 2.5 globally increased by 38%, due in large part to increases in China and India, with deaths attributable to air pollution increasing by 124% between 1960 and 2009 10 .

The momentum behind the air pollution and climate change agendas, and the synergies between them, together with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an opportunity to address air pollution and the related burden of disease. Here, trends in global air quality between 2010 and 2016 are examined in the context of attempts to reduce air pollution, both through long-term policies and more recent attempts to reduce levels of air pollution. Particular focus is given to providing comprehensive coverage of estimated concentrations and obtaining (national-level) distributions of population exposures for health impact assessment. Traditionally, the primary source of information has been measurements from ground monitoring networks but, although coverage is increasing, there remain regions in which monitoring is sparse, or even non-existent (see Supplementary Information) 11 . The Data Integration Model for Air Quality (DIMAQ) was developed by the WHO Data Integration Task Force (see Acknowledgements for details) to respond to the need for improved estimates of exposures to PM 2.5 at high spatial resolution (0.1° × 0.1°) globally 11 . DIMAQ calibrates ground monitoring data with information from satellite retrievals of aerosol optical depth, chemical transport models and other sources to provide yearly air quality profiles for individual countries, regions and globally 11 . Estimates of PM 2.5 concentrations have been compared with previous studies and a good quantitative agreement in the direction and magnitude of trends has been found. This is especially valid in data rich settings (North America, Western Europe and China) where trends results are consistent with what has been found from the analysis of ground level PM 2.5 measurements.

Figure 1a shows average annual concentrations of PM 2.5 for 2016, estimated using DIMAQ,; and Fig. 1b the differences in concentrations between 2010 and 2016. Although air pollution affects high and low-income countries alike, low- and middle-income countries experience the highest burden, with the highest concentrations being seen in Central, Eastern Southern and South-Eastern Asia 12 .

figure 1

a Concentrations in 2016. b Changes in concentrations between 2010 and 2016.

The high concentrations observed across parts of the Middle East, parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan regions of Africa are associated with sand and desert dust. Desert dust has received increasing attention due to the magnitude of its concentration and the capacity to be transported over very long distances in particular areas of the world 13 , 14 . The Sahara is one of the biggest global source of desert dust 15 and the increase of PM 2.5 in this region is consistent with the prediction of an increase of desert dust due to climate change 16 , 17 .

Globally, 55.3% of the world’s population were exposed to increased levels of PM 2.5 , between 2010 and 2016, however there are marked differences in the direction and magnitude of trends across the world. For example, in North America and Europe annual average population-weighted concentrations decreased from 12.4 to 9.8 μg/m 3 while in Central and Southern Asia they rose from 54.8 to 61.5 μg/m 3 . Reductions in concentrations observed in North America and Europe align with those reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency and European Environmental Agency (EEA) 18 , 19 . The lower values observed in these regions reflect substantial regulatory processes that were implemented thirty years ago that have led to substantial decreases in air pollution over previous decades 18 , 20 , 21 . In high-income countries, the extent of air pollution from widespread coal and other solid-fuel burning, together with other toxic emissions from largely unregulated industrial processes, declined markedly with Clean Air Acts and similar ‘smoke control’ legislation introduced from the mid-20th century. However, these remain important sources of air pollution in other parts of the world 22 . In North America and Europe, the rates of improvements are small reflecting the difficulties in reducing concentrations at lower levels.

Assessing the health impacts of air pollution requires detailed information of the levels to which specific populations are exposed. Specifically, it is important to identify whether areas where there are high concentrations are co-located with high populations within a country or region. Population-weighted concentrations, often referred to as population-weighted exposures, are calculated by spatially aligning concentrations of PM 2.5 with population estimates (see Supplementary Information).

Figure 2 shows global trends in estimated concentrations and population-weighted concentrations of PM 2.5 for 2010–2016, together with trends for SDG regions (see Supplementary Fig. 1.1 ). Where population-weighted exposures are higher than concentrations, as seen in Central Asia and Southern Asia, this indicates that higher levels of air pollution coincide with highly populated areas. Globally, whilst concentrations have reduced slightly (from 12.8 μg/m 3 in 2010 to 11.7 in 2016), population-weighted concentrations have increased slightly (33.5 μg/m 3 in 2010, 34.6 μg/m 3 in 2016). In North America and Europe both concentrations and population-weighted concentrations have decreased (6.1–4.9 and 12.4–9.8 μg/m 3 , respectively). The association between concentrations and population can be clearly seen for Central Asia and Southern Asia where concentrations increased from 29.6 to 31.7 μg/m 3 (a 7% increase) while population-weighted concentrations were higher both in magnitude and in percentage of increase, increasing from 54.8 to 61.5 μg/m 3 (a 12% increase).

figure 2

a Concentrations. b Population-weighted concentrations.

For the Eastern Asia and South Eastern Asia concentrations increase from 2010 to 2013 and then decrease from 2013 to 2016, a result of the implementation of the ‘Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’ 21 and the transition to cleaner energy mix due to increased urbanization in China 23 , 24 , 25 . Population-weighted concentrations for urban areas in this region are strongly influenced by China, which comprises 62.6% of the population in the region. Population-weighted concentrations are higher than the concentrations and the decrease is more marked (in the population-weighted concentrations), indicating that the implementation of policies has been successful in terms of the number of people affected. The opposite effect of population-weighting is observed in areas within Western Asia and Northern Africa where an increasing trend in population-weighted concentrations (from 42.0 to 43.1. μg/m 3 ) contains lower values than for concentrations (from 50.7 to 52.6 μg/m 3 ). In this region, concentrations are inversely correlated with population, reflecting the high concentrations associated with desert dust in areas of lower population density.

Long-term policies to reduce air pollution have been shown to be effective and have been implemented in many countries, notably in Europe and the United States. However, even in countries with the cleanest air there are large numbers of people exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. Although precise quantification of the outcomes of specific policies is difficult, coupling the evidence for effective interventions with global, regional and local trends in air pollution can provide essential information for the evidence base that is key in informing and monitoring future policies. There have been major advances in methods that expand the knowledge base about impacts of air pollution on health, from evidence on the health effects 26 , modelling levels of air pollution 1 , 11 and quantification of health impacts that can be used to monitor and report on progress towards the air pollution-related indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals: SDG 3.9.1 (mortality rate attributed to household and ambient air pollution); SDG 7.1.2 (proportion of population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technology); and SDG 11.6.2 (annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (e.g., PM 2.5 and PM 10 ) in cities (population weighted)) 1 . There is a continuing need for further research, collaboration and sharing of good practice between scientists and international organisations, for example the WHO and the World Meteorological Organization, to improve modelling of global air pollution and the assessment of its impact on health. This will include developing models that address specific questions, including for example the effects of transboundary air pollution and desert dust, and to produce tools that provide policy makers with the ability to assess the effects of interventions and to accurately predict the potential effects of proposed policies.

Globally, the population exposed to PM 2.5 levels above the current WHO AQG (annual average of 10 μg/m 3 ) has fallen from 94.2% in 2010 to 90.0% in 2016, driven largely by decreases in North America and Europe (from 71.0% in 2010 to 48.6% in 2016). However, no such improvements are seen in other regions where the proportion has remained virtually constant and extremely high (e.g., greater than 99% in Central, Southern, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) regions. See Supplementary Information for more details).

The problem, and the need for solutions, is not confined to cities: across much of the world the vast majority of people living in rural areas are also exposed to levels above the guidelines. Although there are differences when considering urban and rural areas in North America and Europe, in the vast majority of the world populations living in both urban and rural areas are exposed to levels that are above the AQGs. However, in other regions the story is very different (see Supplementary Information Fig. 7.1 and Supplementary Information Sections 7 and 8), for example population-weighted concentrations in rural areas in the Central and Southern Asia (55.5 μg/m 3 ), Sub-Saharan Africa (39.1 μg/m 3 ), Western Asia and Northern Africa (42.7 μg/m 3 ) and Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia (34.3 μg/m 3 ) regions (in 2016) were all considerably above the AQG. From 2010 to 2016 population-weighted concentrations in rural areas in the Central and Southern Asia region rose by approximately 11% (from 49.8 to 55.5 μg/m 3 ; see Supplementary Information Fig. 7.1 and Supplementary Information Sections 7 and 8). This is largely driven by large rural populations in India where 67.2% of the population live in rural areas 27 . Addressing air pollution in both rural and urban settings should therefore be a key priority in effectively reducing the burden of disease associated with air pollution.

Attempts to mitigate the effects of air pollution have varied according to its source and local conditions, but in all cases cooperation across sectors and at different levels, urban, regional, national and international, is crucial 28 . Policies and investments supporting affordable and sustainable access to clean energy, cleaner transport and power generation, as well as energy-efficient housing and municipal waste management can reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution. Interventions would not only improve health but also reduce climate pollutants and serve as a catalyst for local economic development and the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

Assessment of trends in global air pollution requires comprehensive information on concentrations over time for every country. This information is primarily based on ground monitoring (GM) from 9690 monitoring locations around the world from the WHO cities database for 2010–2016. However, there are regions in this may be limited if not completely unavailable, particularly for earlier years (see Supplementary Information). Even in countries where GM networks are well established, there will still be gaps in spatial coverage and missing data over time. The Data Integration Model for Air Quality (DIMAQ) supplements GM with information from other sources including estimates of PM2.5 from satellite retrievals and chemical transport models, population estimates and topography (e.g., elevation). Specifically, satellite-based estimates that combine aerosol optical depth retrievals with information from the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model 29 were used, together with estimates of sulfate, nitrate, ammonium, organic carbon and mineral dust 30 .

The most recent release of the WHO ambient air quality database, for the first time, contains data from GM for multiple years, where available The version of DIMAQ used here builds on the original version 11 , 30 by allowing data from multiple years to be modelled simultaneously, with the relationship between GMs and satellite-based estimates allowed to vary (smoothly) over time. The result is a comprehensive set of high-resolution (10 km × 10 km) estimates of PM2.5 for each year (2010–2016) for every country.

In order to produce population-weighted concentrations, a comprehensive set of population data on a high-resolution grid (Gridded Population of the World (GPW v4) database 31 ) was combined with estimates from DIMAQ. In addition, the Global Human Settlement Layer 32 was used to define areas as either urban, sub-urban or rural (based on land-use, derived from satellite images, and population estimates). A further dichotomous classification of whether grid-cells within a particular country were urban or rural (allocating sub-urban as either urban or rural) was based on providing the best alignment (at the country-level) to the estimates of urban-rural populations produced by the United Nations 27 .

It is noted that the estimates from DIMAQ used in this article may differ slightly from those used in the WHO estimates of the global burden of disease associated with ambient air pollution 1 , and the associated estimates of air pollution related SDG indicators, due to recent updates in the database and further quality assurance procedures.

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The authors would like to thank the WHO Data Integration Task Force, a multi-disciplinary group of experts established as part of the recommendations from the first meeting of the WHO Global Platform for Air Quality, Geneva, January 2014. The Task Force developed the Data Integration Model for Air Quality and consists of the first author, Michael Brauer, Aaron van Donkelaar, Rick Burnett, Howard H. Chang, Aaron Cohen, Rita Van Dingenen, Yang Liu, Randall Martin, Lance A. Waller, Jason West, James V. Zidek and Annette Pruss-Ustun. The authors would like to give particular thanks to Michael Brauer who provided specialist expertise, together with data on ground measurements, and Aaron van Donkelaar and the Atmospheric Composition Analysis Group at Dalhousie University for providing estimates from satellite remote sensing. The authors would also like to thank Dan Simpson for technical expertise on implementing extensions to DIMAQ. Matthew L Thomas is supported by a scholarship from the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Statistical Applied Mathematics at Bath (SAMBa), under the project EP/L015684/1. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and they do not necessarily represent the views, decisions or policies to institutions with which they are affiliated.

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G. Shaddick

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GS, PM, and SG conceived the project and led the writing of the manuscript. MLT and GR performed the data analysis. GS and MLT developed the statistical model used to produce the estimates. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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Shaddick, G., Thomas, M.L., Mudu, P. et al. Half the world’s population are exposed to increasing air pollution. npj Clim Atmos Sci 3 , 23 (2020).

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How big a problem is air pollution globally?

Air pollution is the world’s leading environmental cause of illness and premature death. Fine air pollution particles or aerosols, also known as fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 , are responsible for 6.4 million deaths every year, caused by diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, type 2 diabetes, and neonatal disorders. About 95% of these deaths occur in developing countries, where billions of people are exposed to outdoor and indoor concentrations of PM 2.5 that are multiple times higher than guidelines established by the World Health Organization. A World Bank report estimated that the cost of the health damage caused by air pollution amounts to $8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of global GDP.

Poor people, elderly people, and young children who come from poor families are the most affected and the least likely to be able to cope with the health impacts that come with air pollution. Global health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic weaken the resilience of societies. Compounding this, exposure to air pollution is linked to increased incidence of COVID-19-related hospital admissions and mortality. In addition to health, air pollution is also linked to biodiversity and ecosystem loss , and has adverse impacts on human capital . Reducing air pollution, on the other hand, not only improves health but strengthens economies. A recent World Bank study found that a 20% decrease in PM 2.5 concentration is associated with a 16% increase in employment growth rate and a 33% increase in labor productivity growth rate .

A World Bank report estimated that the cost of the health damage caused by air pollution amounts to $8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of global GDP.

How is air pollution related to climate change?

Air pollution and climate change are two sides of the same coin, but they are typically addressed separately. They should be tackled jointly, with a focus on protecting peoples’ health – particularly in low- and middle-income countries – to strengthen human capital and reduce poverty.

Air pollutants and greenhouse gases often come from the same sources, such as coal-fired power plants and diesel-fueled vehicles. Some air pollutants do not last long in the environment, notably black carbon – a part of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ). Other short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) include methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and ground-level or tropospheric ozone. SLCPs are far more potent climate warmers than carbon dioxide. Methane is a precursor of ground-level ozone, which according to the Climate and Clean air Coalition and Stockholm Environment Institute, kills about a million people each year, and is 80 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Their relatively short lifespans, coupled with their strong warming potential, means that interventions to reduce SLCP emissions can deliver climate benefits in a relatively short time. If we address short-lived climate pollutants, we gain dual benefits: better air quality and improved health where we live, and the global benefit of mitigating climate change.

A World Bank study found that PM 2.5 from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal combustion or diesel-fueled vehicle emissions is among the most toxic types of PM 2.5 . Particles from these sources are more damaging to health than particles from most other air pollution sources. Addressing these sources of PM 2.5 -- like coal combustion and traffic – would address the most toxic air pollution. Given that these sources are also key contributors to climate warming, tackling air pollution from these sources also mitigates climate change.  

What are some requirements for effectively addressing air pollution?

Measure it and monitor it . Many developing countries do not have even rudimentary infrastructure for measuring air pollution. A World Bank study found that there was only one PM 2.5 ground-level monitor per 65 million people in low-income countries , and one per 28 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa;  in contrast, there is one monitor per 370,000 people in high-income countries. This is a serious issue, because you cannot properly manage what you do not measure. If you don't know how bad your problem is, you won’t know whether anything you do to fix it is effective. Countries need to establish ground-level monitoring networks and operate and maintain them properly so they yield reliable air quality data.

Know the main sources of air pollution and their contributions to poor air quality. For example, in City A, transport may be the biggest contributor, but in City B, it could be something completely different, such as emissions from dirty cooking fuels seeping from homes into the outside environment. With this information you can target interventions appropriately to abate air pollution. There are certainly intuitive, no-regret steps cities and countries can take to tackle air pollution, such as shifting to clean buses or renewable energy. But if you want to address air pollution comprehensively, you need to understand what your own sources are.

Disseminate air quality data to the public . People have a right to know the quality of the air they're breathing. Disseminating this information exerts pressure on those who can make the needed changes. Air quality data should be easily accessible in formats that are widely understood so people can reduce their exposure to air pollution and protect vulnerable groups such as young children, the elderly, and people with health conditions that can be exacerbated by poor air quality.

What are some interventions that countries can implement to reduce air pollution?

Reducing air pollution may require physical investments or it may require policy reforms or both. Not every intervention fits every context. Interventions whose benefits (notably improved health) outweigh the costs should be selected. Part of our work at the World Bank is to incorporate climate change considerations into analysis so that the climate benefits of improving air quality can be taken into account in the decision-making process. A few examples of interventions to improve air quality in different sectors:

  • Energy : Change the energy mix to include cleaner, renewable energy sources and phase out subsidies that promote use of polluting fuels.
  • Industry: Use renewable fuels, adopt cleaner production measures, and install scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators in industrial facilities to filter particulates from emissions before they are released into the air.
  • Transport : Change from diesel to electric vehicles, install catalytic converters in vehicles to reduce toxicity of emissions, establish vehicle inspection and maintenance programs.
  • Agriculture : Discourage use of nitrogen-based fertilizers; improve nitrogen-use efficiency of agricultural soils; and improve fertilizer and manure management. Nitrogen-based fertilizers release ammonia, a precursor of secondary PM 2.5 formation. Nitrogen-based fertilizers can also be oxidized and emitted to the air as nitrous oxide, a long-lived greenhouse gas.
  • Cooking and heating : Promote clean cooking and heating solutions including clean stoves and boilers.
Part of our work at the World Bank is to incorporate climate change considerations into analysis so that the climate benefits of improving air quality can be taken into account in the decision-making process.

What is the World Bank doing to help?

The World Bank has invested about $52 billion in addressing pollution in the past two decades. However, we need to scale this up. Some successful projects that address air pollution include:

In China , we supported a program in the Hebei region , the largest contributor to air pollution in the country. The overall result was a reduction in the concentration of PM 2.5 in the atmosphere by almost 40% between 2013 and the end of 2017. The program linked loan disbursements to tangible results. Hebei issued the most stringent industrial emission standards in the country, replaced diesel buses with electric buses, coal stoves with gas stoves, and improved the efficiency of fertilizer use in agriculture. The program also supported effective use of a continuous emission monitoring system to track and enforce compliance by all major industrial enterprises in the province. The project delivered about 5 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions reductions per year through interventions such as the installation of new stoves in municipalities, and addition of a new clean energy bus fleet. The emissions reductions generated from the installation of 1,221,500 new stoves alone were equivalent to taking more than 860,000 passenger cars off the road each year.

In Peru , the World Bank is supporting a project to develop environmental information systems that includes expanding the country's air quality monitoring network to six new cities. The project is also developing new systems to disseminate information on environmental quality to the public.

In Egypt, we assessed the health impacts from environmental pollution, including the effects of ambient air pollution in Greater Cairo. We found that 19,200 people died prematurely and over 3 billion days were lived with illness in Egypt in 2017 as a result of PM 2.5 air pollution in Greater Cairo and inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene in all of Egypt. This analytical work has led to a project to reduce vehicle emissions, improve the management of solid waste, and strengthen the air and climate decision-making system in Greater Cairo .

In Vietnam , we are working with the rapidly growing city of Hanoi to simultaneously combat the issues of climate change and air pollution. We are supporting the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to improve the Air Quality Monitoring Network and develop an understanding of emissions sources, as well as an Air Quality Management Plan for the city.

In Lao PDR , the World Bank program supported the government in establishing stringent ambient air quality standards, including a standard for annual average concentrations of PM 2. in line with the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline value at the time. The program also supported the adoption of regulated procedures for sampling and analyzing PM 2.5 and PM 10 in air, and other pollutants in water.

We need to tackle air pollution and climate change challenges jointly rather than separately with a focus on protecting peoples’ health today, particularly in developing countries.

Can we expect better air quality in the future as countries decarbonize their economies?

First, we must continue to reduce poverty and meet the needs of poor people, whether through lower energy costs, ensuring cleaner air, or other means. With these goals in mind, we need to tackle air pollution and climate change challenges jointly rather than separately with a focus on protecting peoples’ health today, particularly in developing countries. The health benefits of reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels can occur in the near term. However, the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would occur over a longer timeframe. If decarbonization efforts pay attention to non-CO 2 pollutants as well, notably PM 2.5 , we cannot only expect better air quality, but also health benefits in the short term.

Blog: Supporting a Breath of Fresh Air for Lagos

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Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health.

Smoke blows out of two tall industrial stacks

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What Is Air Pollution?

What causes air pollution, effects of air pollution, air pollution in the united states, air pollution and environmental justice, controlling air pollution, how to help reduce air pollution, how to protect your health.

Air pollution  refers to the release of pollutants into the air—pollutants that are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. According to the  World Health Organization (WHO) , each year, indoor and outdoor air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe. Ninety-nine percent of human beings currently breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, with those living in low- and middle-income countries suffering the most. In the United States, the  Clean Air Act , established in 1970, authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safeguard public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.

“Most air pollution comes from energy use and production,” says  John Walke , director of the Clean Air team at NRDC. Driving a car on gasoline, heating a home with oil, running a power plant on  fracked gas : In each case, a fossil fuel is burned and harmful chemicals and gases are released into the air.

“We’ve made progress over the last 50 years in improving air quality in the United States, thanks to the Clean Air Act. But climate change will make it harder in the future to meet pollution standards, which are designed to  protect health ,” says Walke.

Air pollution is now the world’s fourth-largest risk factor for early death. According to the 2020  State of Global Air  report —which summarizes the latest scientific understanding of air pollution around the world—4.5 million deaths were linked to outdoor air pollution exposures in 2019, and another 2.2 million deaths were caused by indoor air pollution. The world’s most populous countries, China and India, continue to bear the highest burdens of disease.

“Despite improvements in reducing global average mortality rates from air pollution, this report also serves as a sobering reminder that the climate crisis threatens to worsen air pollution problems significantly,” explains  Vijay Limaye , senior scientist in NRDC’s Science Office. Smog, for instance, is intensified by increased heat, forming when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation. In addition, climate change increases the production of allergenic air pollutants, including mold (thanks to damp conditions caused by extreme weather and increased flooding) and pollen (due to a longer pollen season). “Climate change–fueled droughts and dry conditions are also setting the stage for dangerous wildfires,” adds Limaye. “ Wildfire smoke can linger for days and pollute the air with particulate matter hundreds of miles downwind.”

The effects of air pollution on the human body vary, depending on the type of pollutant, the length and level of exposure, and other factors, including a person’s individual health risks and the cumulative impacts of multiple pollutants or stressors.

Smog and soot

These are the two most prevalent types of air pollution. Smog (sometimes referred to as ground-level ozone) occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot—a type of  particulate matter —is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens that are carried in the air. The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines, generally anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline, or natural gas,” Walke says.

Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs, especially those of children, senior citizens, and people who work or exercise outdoors. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies; these extra pollutants can intensify their symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. The tiniest airborne particles in soot are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death. In  2020, a report from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that COVID-19 mortality rates were higher in areas with more particulate matter pollution than in areas with even slightly less, showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to air pollution. 

These findings also illuminate an important  environmental justice issue . Because highways and polluting facilities have historically been sited in or next to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the negative effects of this pollution have been  disproportionately experienced by the people who live in these communities.

Hazardous air pollutants

A number of air pollutants pose severe health risks and can sometimes be fatal, even in small amounts. Almost 200 of them are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury,  lead , dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incineration, or—in the case of benzene—found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, is another carcinogen that can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions.  Mercury  attacks the central nervous system. In large amounts, lead can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even minimal exposure can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn.

Another category of toxic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are by-products of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer.  In one study , the children of mothers exposed to PAHs during pregnancy showed slower brain-processing speeds and more pronounced symptoms of ADHD.

Greenhouse gases

While these climate pollutants don’t have the direct or immediate impacts on the human body associated with other air pollutants, like smog or hazardous chemicals, they are still harmful to our health. By trapping the earth’s heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures, which in turn lead to the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and the increased transmission of infectious diseases. In 2021, carbon dioxide accounted for roughly 79 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and methane made up more than 11 percent. “Carbon dioxide comes from combusting fossil fuels, and methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling,” Walke says. “We emit far larger amounts of carbon dioxide, but methane is significantly more potent, so it’s also very destructive.” 

Another class of greenhouse gases,  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) , are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat. In October 2016, more than 140 countries signed the Kigali Agreement to reduce the use of these chemicals—which are found in air conditioners and refrigerators—and develop greener alternatives over time. (The United States officially signed onto the  Kigali Agreement in 2022.)

Pollen and mold

Mold and allergens from trees, weeds, and grass are also carried in the air, are exacerbated by climate change, and can be hazardous to health. Though they aren’t regulated, they can be considered a form of air pollution. “When homes, schools, or businesses get water damage, mold can grow and produce allergenic airborne pollutants,” says Kim Knowlton, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and a former NRDC scientist. “ Mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks  or an allergic response, and some molds can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale.”

Pollen allergies are worsening  because of climate change . “Lab and field studies are showing that pollen-producing plants—especially ragweed—grow larger and produce more pollen when you increase the amount of carbon dioxide that they grow in,” Knowlton says. “Climate change also extends the pollen production season, and some studies are beginning to suggest that ragweed pollen itself might be becoming a more potent allergen.” If so, more people will suffer runny noses, fevers, itchy eyes, and other symptoms. “And for people with allergies and asthma, pollen peaks can precipitate asthma attacks, which are far more serious and can be life-threatening.”

air pollution project pdf in english

More than one in three U.S. residents—120 million people—live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the  2023  State of the Air  report by the American Lung Association (ALA). Since the annual report was first published, in 2000, its findings have shown how the Clean Air Act has been able to reduce harmful emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing.

Recent findings, however, reflect how climate change–fueled wildfires and extreme heat are adding to the challenges of protecting public health. The latest report—which focuses on ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution—also finds that people of color are 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade in at least one of those categories, and three times more likely to live in a county that fails in all three.

In rankings for each of the three pollution categories covered by the ALA report, California cities occupy the top three slots (i.e., were highest in pollution), despite progress that the Golden State has made in reducing air pollution emissions in the past half century. At the other end of the spectrum, these cities consistently rank among the country’s best for air quality: Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu; and Wilmington, North Carolina. 

No one wants to live next door to an incinerator, oil refinery, port, toxic waste dump, or other polluting site. Yet millions of people around the world do, and this puts them at a much higher risk for respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological damage, cancer, and death. In the United States, people of color are 1.5 times more likely than whites to live in areas with poor air quality, according to the ALA.

Historically, racist zoning policies and discriminatory lending practices known as  redlining  have combined to keep polluting industries and car-choked highways away from white neighborhoods and have turned communities of color—especially low-income and working-class communities of color—into sacrifice zones, where residents are forced to breathe dirty air and suffer the many health problems associated with it. In addition to the increased health risks that come from living in such places, the polluted air can economically harm residents in the form of missed workdays and higher medical costs.

Environmental racism isn't limited to cities and industrial areas. Outdoor laborers, including the estimated three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, are among the most vulnerable to air pollution—and they’re also among the least equipped, politically, to pressure employers and lawmakers to affirm their right to breathe clean air.

Recently,  cumulative impact mapping , which uses data on environmental conditions and demographics, has been able to show how some communities are overburdened with layers of issues, like high levels of poverty, unemployment, and pollution. Tools like the  Environmental Justice Screening Method  and the EPA’s  EJScreen  provide evidence of what many environmental justice communities have been explaining for decades: that we need land use and public health reforms to ensure that vulnerable areas are not overburdened and that the people who need resources the most are receiving them.

In the United States, the  Clean Air Act  has been a crucial tool for reducing air pollution since its passage in 1970, although fossil fuel interests aided by industry-friendly lawmakers have frequently attempted to  weaken its many protections. Ensuring that this bedrock environmental law remains intact and properly enforced will always be key to maintaining and improving our air quality.

But the best, most effective way to control air pollution is to speed up our transition to cleaner fuels and industrial processes. By switching over to renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar power), maximizing fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and replacing more and more of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric versions, we'll be limiting air pollution at its source while also curbing the global warming that heightens so many of its worst health impacts.

And what about the economic costs of controlling air pollution? According to a report on the Clean Air Act commissioned by NRDC, the annual  benefits of cleaner air  are up to 32 times greater than the cost of clean air regulations. Those benefits include up to 370,000 avoided premature deaths, 189,000 fewer hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, and net economic benefits of up to $3.8 trillion for the U.S. economy every year.

“The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and the harmful effects of climate change,” Walke explains. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, ride a bike, walk, or take public transportation. For driving, choose a car that gets better miles per gallon of gas or  buy an electric car .” You can also investigate your power provider options—you may be able to request that your electricity be supplied by wind or solar. Buying your food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the world. And most important: “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says.

  • “When you see in the news or hear on the weather report that pollution levels are high, it may be useful to limit the time when children go outside or you go for a jog,” Walke says. Generally, ozone levels tend to be lower in the morning.
  • If you exercise outside, stay as far as you can from heavily trafficked roads. Then shower and wash your clothes to remove fine particles.
  • The air may look clear, but that doesn’t mean it’s pollution free. Utilize tools like the EPA’s air pollution monitor,  AirNow , to get the latest conditions. If the air quality is bad, stay inside with the windows closed.
  • If you live or work in an area that’s prone to wildfires,  stay away from the harmful smoke  as much as you’re able. Consider keeping a small stock of masks to wear when conditions are poor. The most ideal masks for smoke particles will be labelled “NIOSH” (which stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and have either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.
  • If you’re using an air conditioner while outdoor pollution conditions are bad, use the recirculating setting to limit the amount of polluted air that gets inside. 

This story was originally published on November 1, 2016, and has been updated with new information and links.

This story is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.

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air pollution project pdf in english

by Chris Woodford . Last updated: November 22, 2022.

Photo: Air pollution is obvious when it pours from a smokestack (chimney), but it's not always so easy to spot. This is an old photo of the kind of smoke that used to come from coal-fired power plants and, apart from soot (unburned carbon particles), its pollutants include sulfur dioxide and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Thanks to tougher pollution controls, modern power plants produce only a fraction as much pollution. Modern pollution made by traffic consists of gases like nitrogen dioxide and "particulates" (microscopic soot and dust fragments) that are largely invisible.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is a gas (or a liquid or solid dispersed through ordinary air) released in a big enough quantity to harm the health of people or other animals, kill plants or stop them growing properly, damage or disrupt some other aspect of the environment (such as making buildings crumble), or cause some other kind of nuisance (reduced visibility, perhaps, or an unpleasant odor).

Natural air pollution

Photo: Forest fires are a completely natural cause of air pollution. We'll never be able to prevent them breaking out or stop the pollution they cause; our best hope is to manage forests, where we can, so fires don't spread. Ironically, that can mean deliberately burning areas of forest, as shown here, to create firebreaks. Forests are also deliberately burned to regenerate ecosystems. Photo by courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service .

Top-ten kinds of air pollution Photo: Flying molecules—if you could see air pollution close up, this is what it would look like. Image courtesy of US Department of Energy. Any gas could qualify as pollution if it reached a high enough concentration to do harm. Theoretically, that means there are dozens of different pollution gases. It's important to note that not all the things we think of as pollution are gases: some are aerosols (liquids or solids dispersed through gases). In practice, about ten different substances cause most concern: Sulfur dioxide : Coal, petroleum, and other fuels are often impure and contain sulfur as well as organic (carbon-based) compounds. When sulfur (spelled "sulphur" in some countries) burns with oxygen from the air, sulfur dioxide (SO 2 ) is produced. Coal-fired power plants are the world's biggest source of sulfur-dioxide air pollution, which contributes to smog, acid rain, and health problems that include lung disease. [5] Large amounts of sulfur dioxide are also produced by ships, which use dirtier diesel fuel than cars and trucks. [6] Carbon monoxide : This highly dangerous gas forms when fuels have too little oxygen to burn completely. It spews out in car exhausts and it can also build up to dangerous levels inside your home if you have a poorly maintained gas boiler , stove, or fuel-burning appliance. (Always fit a carbon monoxide detector if you burn fuels indoors.) [7] Carbon dioxide : This gas is central to everyday life and isn't normally considered a pollutant: we all produce it when we breathe out and plants such as crops and trees need to "breathe" it in to grow. However, carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse gas released by engines and power plants. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it's been building up in Earth's atmosphere and contributing to the problem of global warming and climate change . [8] Nitrogen oxides : Nitrogen dioxide (NO 2 ) and nitrogen oxide (NO) are pollutants produced as an indirect result of combustion, when nitrogen and oxygen from the air react together. Nitrogen oxide pollution comes from vehicle engines and power plants, and plays an important role in the formation of acid rain, ozone and smog. Nitrogen oxides are also "indirect greenhouse gases" (they contribute to global warming by producing ozone, which is a greenhouse gas). [9] Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) : These carbon-based (organic) chemicals evaporate easily at ordinary temperatures and pressures, so they readily become gases. That's precisely why they're used as solvents in many different household chemicals such as paints , waxes, and varnishes. Unfortunately, they're also a form of air pollution: they're believed to have long-term (chronic) effects on people's health and they play a role in the formation of ozone and smog. VOCs are also released by tobacco smoke and wildfires. [10] Particulates : There are many different kinds of particulates, from black soot in diesel exhaust to dust and organic matter from the desert. Airborne liquid droplets from farm pollution also count as particulates. Particulates of different sizes are often referred to by the letters PM followed by a number, so PM 10 means soot particles of less than 10 microns (10 millionths of a meter or 10µm in diameter, roughly 10 times thinner than a thick human hair). The smaller ("finer") the particulates, the deeper they travel into our lungs and the more dangerous they are. PM 2.5 particulates are much more dangerous (they're less than 2.5 millionths of a meter or about 40 times thinner than a typical hair). In cities, most particulates come from traffic fumes. [11] Ozone : Also called trioxygen, this is a type of oxygen gas whose molecules are made from three oxygen atoms joined together (so it has the chemical formula O 3 ), instead of just the two atoms in conventional oxygen (O 2 ). In the stratosphere (upper atmosphere), a band of ozone ("the ozone layer") protects us by screening out harmful ultraviolet radiation (high-energy blue light) beaming down from the Sun. At ground level, it's a toxic pollutant that can damage health. It forms when sunlight strikes a cocktail of other pollution and is a key ingredient of smog (see box below). [12] Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) : Once thought to be harmless, these gases were widely used in refrigerators and aerosol cans until it was discovered that they damaged Earth's ozone layer. We discuss this in more detail down below. [13] Unburned hydrocarbons : Petroleum and other fuels are made of organic compounds based on chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. When they burn properly, they're completely converted into harmless carbon dioxide and water ; when they burn incompletely, they can release carbon monoxide or float into the air in their unburned form, contributing to smog. Lead and heavy metals : Lead and other toxic "heavy metals" can be spread into the air either as toxic compounds or as aerosols (when solids or liquids are dispersed through gases and carried through the air by them) in such things as exhaust fumes and the fly ash (contaminated waste dust) from incinerator smokestacks. [14] What are the causes of air pollution?

Photo: Even in the age of electric cars, traffic remains a major cause of air pollution. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (NREL photo id#46361).

Photo: Brown smog lingers over Denver, Colorado. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (NREL photo id#56919).

Chart: Most of the world's major cities routinely exceed World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution guidelines, though progress is being made: you can see that the 2022 figures (green) show a marked improvement on the 2016 ones (orange) in almost every case. This chart compares annual mean PM 2.5 levels in 12 representative cities around the world with the recently revised (2021) WHO guideline value of 5μg per cubic meter (dotted line). PM 2.5 particulates are those smaller than 2.5 microns and believed to be most closely linked with adverse health effects. For more about this chart and the data sources used, see note [22] .

Photo: Smokestacks billowing pollution over Moscow, Russia in 1994. Factory pollution is much less of a problem than it used to be in the world's "richer" countries—partly because a lot of their industry has been exported to nations such as China, India, and Mexico. Photo by Roger Taylor courtesy of US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) .

What effects does air pollution have?

Photo: Air pollution can cause a variety of lung diseases and other respiratory problems. This chest X ray shows a lung disease called emphysema in the patient's left lung. A variety of things can cause it, including smoking and exposure to air pollution. Photo courtesy of National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and National Institutes of Health.

" In 2016, 91% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met." World Health Organization , 2018

Photo: For many years, the stonework on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece has been blackened by particulates from traffic pollution, but other sources of pollution, such as wood-burning stoves, are increasingly significant. Photo by Michael M. Reddy courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey .

How air pollution works on different scales

Indoor air pollution.

Photo: Air freshener—or air polluter?

Further reading

Acid rain—a closer look.

Photo: Acid rain can turn lakes so acidic that fish no longer survive. Picture courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Public Affairs. Why does that matter? Pure water is neither acidic nor alkaline but completely neutral (we say it has an acidity level or pH of 7.0). Ordinary rainwater is a little bit more acidic than this with about the same acidity as bananas (roughly pH 5.5), but if rain falls through sulfur dioxide pollution it can turn much more acidic (with a pH of 4.5 or lower, which is the same acidity as orange or lemon juice). When acid rain accumulates in lakes or rivers, it gradually turns the entire water more acidic. That's a real problem because fish thrive only in water that is neutral or slightly acidic (typically with a pH of 6.5–7.0). Once the acidity drops below about pH 6.0, fish soon start to die—and if the pH drops to about 4.0 or less, all the fish will be killed. Acid rain has caused major problems in lakes throughout North America and Europe. It also causes the death of forests, reduces the fertility of soil, and damages buildings by eating away stonework (the marble on the US Capitol in Washington, DC has been eroded by acid-rain, for example). One of the biggest difficulties in tackling acid rain is that it can happen over very long distances. In one notable case, sulfur dioxide air pollution produced by power plants in the UK was blamed for causing acid rain that fell on Scandinavian countries such as Norway, producing widespread damage to forests and the deaths of thousands of fish in acidified lakes. The British government refused to acknowledge the problem and that was partly why the UK became known as the "dirty man of Europe" in the 1980s and 1990s. [18] Acid rain was a particular problem in the last 30–40 years of the 20th century. Thanks to the decline in coal-fired power plants, and the sulfur dioxide they spewed out, it's less of a problem for western countries today. But it's still a big issue in places like India, where coal remains a major source of energy. Global air pollution It's hard to imagine doing anything so dramatic and serious that it would damage our entire, enormous planet—but, remarkable though it may seem, we all do things like this everyday, contributing to problems such as global warming and the damage to the ozone layer (two separate issues that are often confused). Global warming Every time you ride in a car, turn on the lights, switch on your TV , take a shower, microwave a meal, or use energy that's come from burning a fossil fuel such as oil, coal, or natural gas, you're almost certainly adding to the problem of global warming and climate change: unless it's been produced in some environmentally friendly way, the energy you're using has most likely released carbon dioxide gas into the air. While it's not an obvious pollutant, carbon dioxide has gradually built up in the atmosphere, along with other chemicals known as greenhouse gases . Together, these gases act a bit like a blanket surrounding our planet that is slowly making the mean global temperature rise, causing the climate (the long-term pattern of our weather) to change, and producing a variety of different effects on the natural world, including rising sea levels. Read more in our main article about global warming and climate change . Ozone holes

How can we solve the problem of air pollution?

Photo: Pollution solution: an electrostatic smoke precipitator helps to prevent air pollution from this smokestack at the McNeil biomass power plant in Burlington, VT. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

What can you do to help reduce air pollution?

Photo: Buying organic food reduces the use of sprayed pesticides and other chemicals, so it helps to reduce air (as well as water) pollution.

If you liked this article...

Find out more, on this site.

  • Climate change and global warming
  • Environmentalism (introduction)
  • Land pollution
  • Organic food and farming
  • Renewable energy
  • Water pollution

Breathless by Chris Woodford paperback book cover rendered as dummy book.

  • Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters—and How it Affects You by Chris Woodford. Icon, 2021. My new book explores the problem in much more depth than I've been able to go into here. You can also read a bonus chapter called Angels with dirty faces: How air pollution blackens our buildings and monuments .
  • The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution and How We Can Fight Back by Gary Fuller. Melville House, 2018.
  • Reducing Pollution and Waste by Jen Green. Raintree/Capstone, 2011. A 48-page introduction for ages 9–12. The emphasis here is on getting children to think about pollution: where it comes from, who makes it, and who should solve the problem.
  • Pollution Crisis by Russ Parker. Rosen, 2009. A 32-page guide for ages 8–10. It starts with a global survey of the problem; looks at air, water, and land pollution; then considers how we all need to be part of the solution.
  • Earth Matters by Lynn Dicks et al. Dorling Kindersley, 2008. This isn't specifically about pollution. Instead, it explores how a range of different environmental problems are testing life to the limit in the planet's major biomes (oceans, forests, and so on). I wrote the section of this book that covers the polar regions.
  • State of Global Air : One of the best sources of global air pollution data.
  • American Lung Association: State of the Air Report : A good source of data about the United States.
  • European Environment Agency: Air quality in Europe : A definitive overview of the situation in the European countries.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) Ambient (outdoor) air pollution in cities database : A spreadsheet of pollution data for most major cities in the world (a little out of date, but a new version is expected soon).
  • Our World in Data : Accessible guides to global data from Oxford University.
  • The New York Times Topics: Air Pollution
  • The Guardian: Pollution
  • Wired: Pollution
  • 'Invisible killer': fossil fuels caused 8.7m deaths globally in 2018, research finds by Oliver Milman. The Guardian, February 9, 2021. Pollution of various kinds causes something like one in five of all deaths.
  • Millions of masks distributed to students in 'gas chamber' Delhi : BBC News, 1 November 2019.
  • 90% of world's children are breathing toxic air, WHO study finds by Matthew Taylor. The Guardian, October 29, 2018. The air pollution affecting billions of children could continue to harm their health throughout their lives.
  • Pollution May Dim Thinking Skills, Study in China Suggests by Mike Ives. The New York Times, August 29, 2018. Long-term exposure to air pollution seems to cause a decline in cognitive skills.
  • Global pollution kills 9m a year and threatens 'survival of human societies' by Damian Carrington. The Guardian, October 19, 2017. Air, water, and land pollution kill millions, cost trillions, and threaten the very survival of humankind, a new study reveals.
  • India's Air Pollution Rivals China's as World's Deadliest by Geeta Anand. The New York Times, February 14, 2017. High levels of pollution could be killing 1.1 million Indians each year.
  • More Than 9 in 10 People Breathe Bad Air, WHO Study Says by Mike Ives. The New York Times, September 27, 2016. New WHO figures suggest the vast majority of us are compromising our health by breathing bad air.
  • Study Links 6.5 Million Deaths Each Year to Air Pollution by Stanley Reed. The New York Times, June 26, 2016. Air pollution deaths are far greater than previously supposed according to a new study by the International Energy Agency.
  • UK air pollution 'linked to 40,000 early deaths a year' by Michelle Roberts, BBC News, February 23, 2016. Diesel engines, cigarette smoke, and even air fresheners are among the causes of premature death from air pollution.
  • This Wearable Detects Pollution to Build Air Quality Maps in Real Time by Davey Alba. Wired, November 19, 2014. A wearable pollution gadget lets people track their exposure to air pollution through a smartphone app.
  • Air pollution and public health: emerging hazards and improved understanding of risk by Frank J. Kelly and Julia C. Fussell, Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 2015
  • Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: lines that connect by C.A. Pope and D.W. Dockery. Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association, 2006
  • Ambient and household air pollution: complex triggers of disease by Stephen A. Farmer et al, Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol, 2014

Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2010, 2022. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use .

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Air pollution.

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings.

Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Geography

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Morgan Stanley

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings. Pollutants in the air take many forms. They can be gases , solid particles , or liquid droplets. Sources of Air Pollution Pollution enters the Earth's atmosphere in many different ways. Most air pollution is created by people, taking the form of emissions from factories, cars, planes, or aerosol cans . Second-hand cigarette smoke is also considered air pollution . These man-made sources of pollution are called anthropogenic sources . Some types of air pollution , such as smoke from wildfires or ash from volcanoes , occur naturally. These are called natural sources . Air pollution is most common in large cities where emissions from many different sources are concentrated . Sometimes, mountains or tall buildings prevent air pollution from spreading out. This air pollution often appears as a cloud making the air murky. It is called smog . The word " smog " comes from combining the words " smoke " and " fog ." Large cities in poor and developing nations tend to have more air pollution than cities in developed nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) , some of the worlds most polluted cities are Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Beijing, China; Lima, Peru; and Cairo, Egypt. However, many developed nations also have air pollution problems. Los Angeles, California, is nicknamed Smog City. Indoor Air Pollution Air pollution is usually thought of as smoke from large factories or exhaust from vehicles. But there are many types of indoor air pollution as well. Heating a house by burning substances such as kerosene , wood, and coal can contaminate the air inside the house. Ash and smoke make breathing difficult, and they can stick to walls, food, and clothing. Naturally-occurring radon gas , a cancer -causing material, can also build up in homes. Radon is released through the surface of the Earth. Inexpensive systems installed by professionals can reduce radon levels. Some construction materials, including insulation , are also dangerous to people's health. In addition, ventilation , or air movement, in homes and rooms can lead to the spread of toxic mold . A single colony of mold may exist in a damp, cool place in a house, such as between walls. The mold 's spores enter the air and spread throughout the house. People can become sick from breathing in the spores . Effects On Humans People experience a wide range of health effects from being exposed to air pollution . Effects can be broken down into short-term effects and long-term effects . Short-term effects , which are temporary , include illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis . They also include discomfort such as irritation to the nose, throat, eyes, or skin. Air pollution can also cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea . Bad smells made by factories, garbage , or sewer systems are considered air pollution , too. These odors are less serious but still unpleasant . Long-term effects of air pollution can last for years or for an entire lifetime. They can even lead to a person's death. Long-term health effects from air pollution include heart disease , lung cancer , and respiratory diseases such as emphysema . Air pollution can also cause long-term damage to people's nerves , brain, kidneys , liver , and other organs. Some scientists suspect air pollutants cause birth defects . Nearly 2.5 million people die worldwide each year from the effects of outdoor or indoor air pollution . People react differently to different types of air pollution . Young children and older adults, whose immune systems tend to be weaker, are often more sensitive to pollution. Conditions such as asthma , heart disease , and lung disease can be made worse by exposure to air pollution . The length of exposure and amount and type of pollutants are also factors.

Effects On The Environment Like people, animals, and plants, entire ecosystems can suffer effects from air pollution . Haze , like smog , is a visible type of air pollution that obscures shapes and colors. Hazy air pollution can even muffle sounds. Air pollution particles eventually fall back to Earth. Air pollution can directly contaminate the surface of bodies of water and soil . This can kill crops or reduce their yield . It can kill young trees and other plants. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide particles in the air, can create acid rain when they mix with water and oxygen in the atmosphere . These air pollutants come mostly from coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles . When acid rain falls to Earth, it damages plants by changing soil composition ; degrades water quality in rivers, lakes and streams; damages crops ; and can cause buildings and monuments to decay . Like humans, animals can suffer health effects from exposure to air pollution . Birth defects , diseases, and lower reproductive rates have all been attributed to air pollution . Global Warming Global warming is an environmental phenomenon caused by natural and anthropogenic air pollution . It refers to rising air and ocean temperatures around the world. This temperature rise is at least partially caused by an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere . Greenhouse gases trap heat energy in the Earths atmosphere . (Usually, more of Earths heat escapes into space.) Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has had the biggest effect on global warming . Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels ( coal , gasoline , and natural gas ). Humans have come to rely on fossil fuels to power cars and planes, heat homes, and run factories. Doing these things pollutes the air with carbon dioxide . Other greenhouse gases emitted by natural and artificial sources also include methane , nitrous oxide , and fluorinated gases . Methane is a major emission from coal plants and agricultural processes. Nitrous oxide is a common emission from industrial factories, agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels in cars. Fluorinated gases , such as hydrofluorocarbons , are emitted by industry. Fluorinated gases are often used instead of gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs have been outlawed in many places because they deplete the ozone layer . Worldwide, many countries have taken steps to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming . The Kyoto Protocol , first adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, is an agreement between 183 countries that they will work to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions . The United States has not signed that treaty . Regulation In addition to the international Kyoto Protocol , most developed nations have adopted laws to regulate emissions and reduce air pollution . In the United States, debate is under way about a system called cap and trade to limit emissions . This system would cap, or place a limit, on the amount of pollution a company is allowed. Companies that exceeded their cap would have to pay. Companies that polluted less than their cap could trade or sell their remaining pollution allowance to other companies. Cap and trade would essentially pay companies to limit pollution. In 2006 the World Health Organization issued new Air Quality Guidelines. The WHOs guidelines are tougher than most individual countries existing guidelines. The WHO guidelines aim to reduce air pollution -related deaths by 15 percent a year. Reduction Anybody can take steps to reduce air pollution . Millions of people every day make simple changes in their lives to do this. Taking public transportation instead of driving a car, or riding a bike instead of traveling in carbon dioxide - emitting vehicles are a couple of ways to reduce air pollution . Avoiding aerosol cans , recycling yard trimmings instead of burning them, and not smoking cigarettes are others.

Downwinders The United States conducted tests of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada in the 1950s. These tests sent invisible radioactive particles into the atmosphere. These air pollution particles traveled with wind currents, eventually falling to Earth, sometimes hundreds of miles away in states including Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Washington. These areas were considered to be "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site. Decades later, people living in those downwind areascalled "downwinders"began developing cancer at above-normal rates. In 1990, the U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This law entitles some downwinders to payments of $50,000.

Greenhouse Gases There are five major greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere.

  • water vapor
  • carbon dioxide
  • nitrous oxide

London Smog What has come to be known as the London Smog of 1952, or the Great Smog of 1952, was a four-day incident that sickened 100,000 people and caused as many as 12,000 deaths. Very cold weather in December 1952 led residents of London, England, to burn more coal to keep warm. Smoke and other pollutants became trapped by a thick fog that settled over the city. The polluted fog became so thick that people could only see a few meters in front of them.

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