Air pollution and health

Air pollution is a public health emergency. The simple act of breathing polluted air over prolonged periods can result in multiple acute and chronic health issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost all of the global population (99%) breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits and contains high pollution levels. Low- and middle-income countries suffer the highest exposures.

Some of the same pollutants that compromise respiratory health also drive climate change. For example, burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) for electricity, heat, or transportation is a significant driver of climate change and the primary source of air pollution. Recent collaborative research shows that “more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested—meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.”

Air pollution increases extreme weather-related injuries and mortality, the spread of infectious diseases, asthma, respiratory allergies, chronic respiratory disorders, and malnutrition, leads to child development complications, and stress-related and mental health disorders. It is also a significant driver of population displacement, migration, and climate-triggered instability and conflict.

 

What do we do

Health Care Without Harm works with health care professionals to help raise community awareness on the health impacts of air pollution and advocate for better policies.

Health professionals are usually the most trusted voices in their communities. Country leadership looks to them for advice, families confide in them, and citizens want to adhere to what the country’s leading medical professionals have to say about their health.

When doctors, nurses, hospitals, and health systems take public stances on air pollution and climate change, it can reframe these issues as public health questions and help move public opinion and policy.

Contentious issues like air pollution can also become easily politicized as the problem is often deeply rooted in established economic development models. Health professionals’ voices can help depoliticize the debate, educate a broader public constituency, bolster campaigns for just energy transition, and ultimately affect policy decisions on energy sources, infrastructure, city planning, and design.

Our regional offices in Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia, and our partners in India and South Africa work with doctors and nurses, hospitals and health systems, government officials, and local communities. They conduct and publish research, communicate on social media, engage with state and national policymakers, and collaborate with organizations in the health and environment sectors.

You can find our position paper on Just Transition flagging the need for an urgent, deeper conversation that weaves health into the Just Transition fabric, in a way that centers on protecting and improving people’s health in a post-fossil fuel society. This document posits that health is the overlapping but missing link between the different movements’ dreams for Just Transition into an equitable world, and for healing people and the planet damaged by fossil fuels. 

 

How we are promoting action

 

Our vision for the future: clean air, health equity, and climate justice

Health Care Without Harm’s work, and that of our partners, focuses on mobilizing the health sector to reduce its own footprint and advocate for environmental health and justice. We are doing this at the policy level, laterally across the health sector, and at the grassroots with the pollution-impacted communities.

In this workspace, we envision a growing health voice advocating for a just transition from dependence on fossil fuels to an economy that values health and promotes sustainable health care and health equity based on clean, renewable healthy energy.

Success will mean a vibrant and effective worldwide movement that includes more actively engaged health professionals, health decision-makers, and communities advocating for their health, contributing to the global movement for clean air and a healthy planet.

 

More information