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WHO Data and Warning on the Impact of Air Pollution

WHO issues new data and a warning on the health impacts of air pollution

An estimated 2.8 million deaths in the Western Pacific Region in 2012 from
heart disease, lung cancer and other illnesses linked to air pollution

MANILA, 25 March 2014 The World Health Organization warns that air pollution is taking a mounting toll on health globally with the deaths of an estimated 7 million people in 2012 linked to dangerous air. The figure reflects a strong connection between air pollution—both outdoors and in the home—and a range of illnesses, including heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Among the six WHO regions, the Western Pacific bears a disproportionately high burden: an estimated 2.88 million (41%) of deaths globally due to indoor and outdoor air pollution occur here, although the Region accounts for approximately 25% of the world's population.

Further, a serious disparity exists between richer and poorer countries within the Western Pacific Region: the mortality rate attributable to air pollution is estimated to be 5.4 times higher in lower- and middle-income countries than in higher-income countries (172 versus 32 deaths per 100 000 persons).

When considered separately, ambient or outdoor air pollution takes a slightly higher toll than household or indoor air pollution (1.67 million versus 1.62 million deaths, respectively). Ischemic heart disease (or coronary heart disease) is the leading cause of death associated with factors stemming from air pollution, followed by stroke, chronic lung disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory disease.

“These new data are an urgent push for all of us, from governments to individuals, to work towards promoting and adopting even stronger measures to control air pollution in order to save lives and safeguard health,” said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “As we continue to strengthen the data and evidence, it is crucial that the health sector in every country collaborates ever more closely with the environment sector and engages other stakeholders as well. We must translate these data into concrete policies that are effectively implemented, to help decrease the overall health burden from air pollution.”

In 2013, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined definitively that air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, contributing significantly to the incidence of lung cancer. The latest reports provide more evidence regarding the link between exposure to air pollution, both outdoor and indoor, and non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease (including ischemic heart disease and stroke) and cancer. Addressing air pollution effectively will help in reducing the health burden from non-communicable diseases, which are a particularly significant challenge in the Western Pacific Region.

The primary sources of ambient or outdoor air pollution include industrial and motor vehicle emissions and household heating.

Among the main sources of household or indoor pollution are the burning of fossil fuels, such as solid fuels in open fire cooking stoves, as well as second-hand smoke from tobacco products.

About half of all women and children in the Western Pacific Region are exposed to second-hand smoke, which not only contributes to respiratory diseases but also to a wide range of conditions including cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

The WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific has been working closely with Member States to help strengthen their capacities to conduct health risk assessments and management to reduce air pollution. Through the Regional Forum on Environment and Health in Southeast and East Asian countries, WHO promotes collaboration between the health and environment sectors within governments and across civil society to address major environmental health challenges.

Existing good practices of air pollution control have been very effective such as: enforcement and compliance with national air and fuel quality standards and fuel emission standards; public health initiatives to improve the home environment (e.g. having adequate windows, using low emission stoves and a separate kitchen or area for cooking); and public health education that encourages adoption of healthy behaviours (e.g. use of pot lids, regular maintenance of stoves and keeping children away from smoke, including second-hand smoke). New guidelines regarding household fuel consumption are set to be released this year along with updates on air quality from more than 1600 cities worldwide.

“Many countries are finally stepping up their actions to combat air pollution,” noted Dr Nasir Hassan, Team Leader, Environmental Health, WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. “For example in China, where we have recently seen huge concern over the critical air pollution situation there, Premier Li Keqiang has declared a war on pollution. This signifies a willingness to move towards more intensive and rigorous monitoring of air pollution, and to take stronger measures to tackle the very sources of the pollution in the first place.”

“The air pollution crisis did not occur overnight, and the solutions will not occur overnight,” concluded Dr Shin. “Environmental health in general is a complex issue, as it goes hand in hand with urbanization, economic development and so many other factors. But it’s obvious this crisis—and it is a crisis—can no longer be ignored. The data and evidence are crystal clear, and effective and innovative tools are available for Member States to tackle this issue head on. WHO urges all to work together, quickly and strategically, towards a healthier environment for those of us living on our planet now, as well as those who will follow us in the generations to come.”

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