Air pollution has gone from environmental concern to public health threat; authorities are calling for tighter standards
02/10/2019 // Jessica Dolores // Views

Air pollution is raising a collective outcry all over the world, one of the loudest of which belongs to England's chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies. The concerned public official is calling on the government to pull out all the stops in fighting air pollution by introducing stringent new national standards to reduce the threat to health.

Davies says pollution must be seen as a public health issue and not just an environmental concern. In her 2017 annual report, Davies warned that pollution has grown to become a major threat to public health,  posing challenges in areas related to cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She also expressed dissatisfaction over a policy that leaves decisions on reducing air pollution to local authorities because she fears this could create confusion among drivers and lead to inconsistent implementation.

She pointed out, “Instead of being seen as a health issue, pollution is often seen primarily as an environmental problem. This needs to change. As a society, we need to regain a focus on pollution as a threat to human health.”

Davies has reason to sound the alarm. The high court in the U.K. gave low marks to the government’s air quality plan. It again castigated government ministers for failing to come up with an effective plan to reduce air pollution.

Toxic air is responsible for an alarming 40,000 deaths a year in the U.K. The most affected are people with respiratory problems and children, who can be maimed for life due to exposure to pollutants at an early age. No wonder Davies wants everyone to look at pollution, not just as something that affects the air everyone breathes, but their very lives as well. “Addressing pollution is therefore disease prevention,” she points out. (Related: Study finds air pollution is more likely to make you sick than inherited risk factors (genetics).)


  • Air pollution leads to lung disease and other respiratory problems. A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2013 said air pollution was responsible for around two million of these deaths a year, mostly in developing countries. In the U.S., around 40,000 people die prematurely a year due to air pollution.
  • Air pollution is also responsible for acid rain, which harms plants, buildings and the environment. North America and Europe in particular have seen how acid rain harms aquatic life in the lakes. Crops suffer because the soil is contaminated from pollutants.
  • Air pollution also causes eutrophication, where bodies of water acquire excess nutrients from runoff deposits of nitrates and phosphates. These deposits lead to excess algae growth  and make it hard for fish and other marine animals to survive.
  • Ground level ozone is another offshoot of air pollution. Children and the elderly who inhale the harmful elements in the ozone are at highest risk for lung and respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis or asthma.

All these show that ignoring air pollution is allowing disease and death to claim more lives. It's high time we do something now, before we regret our gross inaction later.

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