Last year saw Beijing choked in smog, while it only took eight days this year for London to breach its air pollution limits for 2016. The issue of clean air has become such a massive international problem that the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning saying that there is now a global “public health emergency,” one that will not only affect the health of many living in cities, but also hit economies as public health spending tries to keep track.
The pollution, which comes from a mix of sources including vehicle exhaust, construction dust, and wood burning stoves, is thought to cause up to 7 million premature deaths annually around the world. Most of these deaths are from strokes and heart attacks, and quite shockingly the figure is more than the number of deaths caused by both malaria and HIV combined. Considering these numbers, it seems extraordinary that so little attention is seemingly given to the massive health issues it causes.
As populations in India continue to grow, the problem of air pollution in cities is of increasing concern. Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock
Next month, the WHO will issue figures that will show the impact air pollution is having on countries right around the globe. They are expected to show how the air quality in 2,000 cities has declined dramatically as populations grow, vehicle numbers boom, and the burning of fossil fuels continues to climb. Many of the cities worst hit by harmful levels of pollution are found in India, with Delhi and its population of almost 25 million people topping the list with an average of 153 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter. The EU considers the safe limit to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
These current figures from the WHO, however, include only those cities that measure air pollution, and many that are assumed to have the worst records do not do this. Many cities in Africa, for instance, are expected to have huge pollution problems, but the data simply does not exist to be able to quantify it. The figures from the WHO also show an average, while peaks in air pollution from many cities reach much higher. The smog over Beijing, for example, measured 291 micrograms per cubic meter, while Delhi has seen this figure rise to an astonishing 377.
But the cost of bad air is not just one of public health concern, but also of economic concern as costs associated with it continue to climb. The WHO estimates that the extra admissions to hospital and associated health care cost Europe more than $1.6 trillion (£1.1 trillion) in 2010 alone. As the issue of pollution continues to grow, the costs associated with it will spiral in tandem. But the problem is becoming harder and harder for politicians to ignore, raising some hope that as air pollution is tackled, for example by investing in clean energy, it might have a knock-on effect of also mitigating climate change.