Europe’s silent killer: The air we breathe

Monika Kosinska, Programme Manager, Governance for Health Division at the World Health Organization explains why the air we breathe is Europe’s silent killer

Toxic air is a “silent global public health emergency” according to the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that is on the scale of smoking. Nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air that kills seven million people each year.

The alarming damage to health from air pollution can be measured by the fact that the hearts of young people living in cities contain billions of toxic air pollution particles – even in a child as young as three. This health burden is falling on our most vulnerable populations – children, as well as lower-status socioeconomic groups and excluded communities. Air pollution is the cause of one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease. It has even surpassed physical inactivity, alcohol misuse, obesity and as a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) to become the second leading cause of death from NCDs.

As much as 68% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050 compared with 55% now, according to UNESCO. And it is urban areas that are clogged with rising levels of air pollution as cities get hotter and more crowded – and traffic levels mount. This raises the questions of what type of disruptive change could help cities tackle the serious problem of air pollution and subsequently the growing burden of NCDs and how urbanisation can progress in a more sustainable way.

Even though air pollution is typically thought of as a by-product of megacities in Asia, levels in Europe are in fact higher than the global average. In 2016, over 550,000 people died prematurely across the continent because of dirty air. A recent study in the European Heart Journal even suggests numbers could be as high as 800 000 annually.

The high level of urbanisation (74%) is the reason for Europe’s bad air quality – and estimates say that by 2050 this could reach virtually 84%. To help find solutions we must first and foremost differentiate between ambient and indoor air pollution. The former results predominantly from emissions from transport, energy and industrial activities, the latter from burning fuel for cooking, heating and lighting.

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