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Air pollution affects our health

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 6.5 million deaths a year (1 in 9) occurring globally are due to air pollution, including household air pollution. Deaths result from:

  • respiratory infections
  • tuberculosis
  • neonatal conditions
  • cancers
  • mental, behavioural and neurological disorders
  • cataracts
  • cardiovascular diseases
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • asthma
  • congenital anomalies
  • strokes.

The WHO describes air pollution as a global public health emergency, which contributes to:

  • 36% of lung cancer deaths
  • 34% of stroke deaths
  • 27% of heart disease deaths.

A 2010 study of 5 Australian and 2 New Zealand cities confirmed that there is a significant correlation between increased concentrations of the urban mixture of air pollutants, and increased mortality and hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Research across the world has shown how changes in particulate concentrations directly contribute to changes in mortality rates (Figure 21). In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified outdoor air pollution and particulate matter as Group 1 carcinogens.

soer2018_PM2.5_deathsFigure 21: Number of deaths attributable to PM2.5 in 2016.
Source: State of Global Air 2018

Children, the elderly and those with existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions are particularly susceptible or sensitive to air pollution. Interactions between pollutants and natural conditions have the potential to aggravate health impacts. Poor air quality, combined with excessive heat, has been shown to be a particular risk for vulnerable people. 

Smoke, dust deposits and odours can also potentially cause environmental nuisance.

Climate change is predicted to result in increased amounts of ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution that we breathe, leading to lung diseases, heart conditions and strokes. In addition, less rain and increased temperatures are expected to result in this pollution staying in the air for longer, creating greater health impacts. The predicted hotter and drier climate with more extreme events means dust storms and bushfires are likely to become more frequent and severe, resulting in exposure to higher particle levels.

Health researchers predict that, if climate change continues unabated, it will cause about 60,000 extra deaths globally each year by 2030, rising to 260,000 by 2100.

Plants and animals are also affected

Air quality impacts on the natural environment through acidification or excessive growth of aquatic plants and oxygen depletion of ecosystems, lower crop yields, bio-accumulation and damage to plants and animals. For example, some species of plants and animals are more sensitive to fluoride and sulfur dioxide than humans. Air emissions of nitrogen oxides from power plants, cars, trucks and other sources also contribute to the quantity of nitrogen entering aquatic ecosystems.

Animals can experience birth defects, reproductive failure and disease if exposed to high concentrations of toxic air over time. Some toxic air pollutants are persistent, only breaking down slowly. These are of particular concern in aquatic ecosystems. These pollutants accumulate in sediments and may concentrate in the tissues of animals at the top of the food chain to levels many times higher than in the water or air.

Monetary costs

In 2013, research from the World Bank estimated the global economic cost of air pollution related deaths at US$225 billion in lost labour income and more than US$5 trillion in welfare losses. The OECD has predicted global air pollution related healthcare costs will increase from US$21 billion in 2015 to US$176 billion in 2060 by which time the global annual number of lost working days affecting labour productivity is projected to reach 3.7 billion, being currently around 1.2 billion.

Risks of accelerating air pollution

The 2015 National Clean Air Agreement has identified multiple risks of increasing air pollution and impacts of air quality in Australia, including:

  • Population growth and ageing – the number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to more than double by 2054–55. The elderly are generally more vulnerable to air pollution.
  • Urbanisation – a growing number and proportion of Australians select a city lifestyle where they are more likely to be exposed to many sources of pollution.
  • Increased transport and energy demands – over 70% of all domestic travel is by road. By 2030, road and rail freight are expected to grow by 80% and 90% respectively, with national public transport only growing by 30%.