Cutting air pollution ‘can prevent deaths within weeks’

Asthma and heart attacks fall rapidly and babies born healthier, review finds

Cutting air pollution can prevent deaths within weeks, according to scientists. They found the health benefits of clean air were “almost immediate and substantial” and stretched into the long term, saving billions of dollars.

The review examined the evidence for the reduction of illness after levels of toxic air were reduced. It showed dramatic reductions in asthma and children missing school, heart attacks and the number of small and premature babies.

“I was surprised at how rapidly the benefits arise,” said Prof Dean Schraufnagel, at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead author of the report.

“Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects. It is critical that governments adopt and enforce World Health Organization guidelines for air pollution immediately.

“Sweeping policies affecting a whole country can reduce mortality within weeks. Local programmes, such as reducing traffic, have also promptly improved many health measures.”

Schraufnagel said the findings made sense. With coronary heart disease, for example, low oxygen levels are a key factor and can be made worse by a bad air day. “That could tip you over and cause a heart attack immediately,” he said.

The researchers also said health benefits accrued, even when air pollution below WHO levels were cut.

A global review earlier in the year concluded that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. The World Health Organization says air pollution is a “silent public health emergency”, with more than 90% of the world’s population breathing toxic air.

The report, published in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society by international experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, found the benefits of cleaner air begin in the first week.

When indoor smoking was banned in Ireland, the reduction in secondhand smoke led to deaths across the entire population falling 13%, heart attacks by 26% and strokes by 32%.

After a 17-day traffic shutdown in parts of Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, children’s visits to clinics for asthma dropped by more than 40% and to emergency departments by 11%, the report found. Factory and traffic shutdowns two months ahead of the Beijing Olympics also cut asthma and heart attacks.

Other industry shutdowns have had dramatic effects, the scientists said. An eight-month smelters’ strike in the south-western US caused overall death rates to drop by 2.5%, while a 13-month closure of a Utah steel mill resulted in hospitalisations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma being cut by about half, and days of school missed by children fell by 40%.

Women who were pregnant during the mill closure were less also likely to have premature births. Indoor air pollution from solid fuel burning was a serious hazard too, and pregnant women in Nigeria given clean-burning stoves had healthier babies and fewer deaths in the first week of the baby’s life.

The benefits of cutting air pollution persist in the longer term and is very cost effective, the researchers said. The US Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved $2tn in the 25 years after it became law, 32 times more than associated costs.

“What are we waiting for? Here’s the evidence,” Schraufnagel said. “If it is competing interests or commercialism [blocking action] then we have to tell the people, and the people then can come out strongly and tell politicians we want cleaner air.”

He said legal air pollution limits exist in many countries but that enforcement is often poor. Levels of nitrogen dioxide in the UK, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, have been illegally high in most urban areas since 2010.

But despite the government having been defeated three times in the high court on the issue, relatively little progress has been made.

Schraufnagel said the biggest health benefits came from tackling the biggest pollution problems. However, reductions in toxic air, even below WHO guidelines, continued to cut disease.


Damian Carrington Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research
Researchers say dirty air is killing 800,000 people a year in Europe, and urge the phasing out of fossil fuel burning

Damian Carrington Environment editor

12, Mar, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Pollution responsible for quarter of deaths of young children, says WHO
Toxic air, unsafe water and lack of sanitation cause the deaths of 1.7 million under-fives every year

Damian Carrington

07, Mar, 2017 @11:43 AM

Article image
Lower UK air pollution limits to prevent deaths, says coroner
Report following 2013 death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, 9, calls for Britain to follow WHO recommendations

Sandra Laville

21, Apr, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
New 'real world' diesel tests fail to prevent rush hour pollution peak
Exclusive: new tests are intended to close loopholes but cars can still emit excess fumes in slow traffic, data shows

Damian Carrington Environment editor

13, Sep, 2017 @6:00 PM

Article image
‘Compelling’ evidence air pollution worsens coronavirus – study
Exclusive: best analysis to date indicates significant increases in infections, hospital admissions and deaths

Damian Carrington Environment editor

13, Jul, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Coronavirus UK lockdown causes big drop in air pollution
Air quality in big cities is likely to improve even more in coming weeks, say scientists

Damian Carrington Environment editor

27, Mar, 2020 @9:32 AM

Article image
Airborne plastic pollution ‘spiralling around the globe’, study finds
Rising levels of microplastic pollution raise questions about the impact on human health, experts say

Damian Carrington Environment editor

12, Apr, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Road pollution affects 94% of Great Britain, study finds
Exclusive: Roads make up 1% of the country but the pollution produced may harm wildlife everywhere

Damian Carrington Environment editor

12, Mar, 2021 @10:08 AM

Article image
Revealed: microplastic pollution is raining down on city dwellers
Exclusive: London has highest level yet recorded but health impacts of breathing particles are unknown

Damian Carrington Environment editor

27, Dec, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Air pollution is the ‘new tobacco’, warns WHO head
Exclusive: Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor

27, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM