Air pollution: The invisible killer

10Jul 2020
Crispin Gerald
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Air pollution: The invisible killer

​​​​​​​MORE than nine people out of ten breathe air that is harmful to our health. Every year, millions of adults and children die prematurely because of outdoor air pollution. It is an invisible killer: not just because we cannot always see it, but also because most of us are unaware-

As we build back from Covid-19, the governments that prioritise air quality will have more resilient economies than those that do not. File photo

-of the widespread toll it takes, contributing to more than 7 percent of global deaths annually.

“Nine in ten deaths from air pollution occurs in low and middle-income countries. Across all countries the poor are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, which is primarily produced by the rich,” according to a new report on clean air funded and prepared by Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, IKEA Foundation and FIA Foundation.

Titled; Breathing space, why and how we must build back better to achieve clean air for all, the report is meant to give the policy makers an unprecedented opportunity to reshape markets in ways that protect human health and the health of the planet.

The costs of failing to improve air quality are considerable. Air pollution cost US$ 21 billion in global health expenditure in 2015. If welfare losses are included, the costs run into many trillions of dollars.

“The more individuals are exposed to air pollution, the greater the chance that they will develop a pre-existing condition which makes them more susceptible to Covid-19, like heart or respiratory disease. Those that suffer from these conditions are markedly more likely to be hospitalized from Covid-19,” said the report.

Unequal exposure to air pollution means that low income communities went into this crisis with poorer health and a greater incidence of pre-existing conditions. People on lower incomes also have less access to high quality healthcare compared to higher income.

“Based on previous research done on similar respiratory viruses to Covid-19, such as the SARS coronavirus in 2003, scientists have been hypothesizing that outdoor air pollution might contribute to the spread of Covid-19 by acting as a carrier for the virus,” the findings show.

Scientists have recently discovered Covid-19 on samples of particulate matter from an industrial site in Bergamo, Northern, Italy. This evidence is the first to suggest that air pollution could be a carrier for Covid-19, although more research is needed into whether the quantity and virulence of Covid-19 carries on particulate matter is enough to cause infection.

The Covid-19 has presented an unparalleled global public health crisis. The toll on our lives and families, businesses, health services and economies is enormous. Each death is a tragedy, and the effects on our collective wellbeing and financial security will be significant.

Attention is now turning to how we can use unprecedented economic recovery packages to trigger a green industrial revolution which protects our health, wellbeing and livelihoods.

The rapid responses and high levels of compliance shown in this crisis tell us that we can change our behaviour if the public health imperative and political mandate exist.

This critical window of opportunity demands bold, decisive and informed leadership and effective global collaboration, with a joined-up, strategic and well-resourced approach to cleaning our air we can improve health, build resilience to future diseases, boost productivity, reduce health costs and help tackle climate change.

As lockdowns are eased and economies restated, people around the world do not want a return to toxic levels of air pollution. That would simply replace one health crisis for another.

To achieve this, we need to better understand the sources and impact of air pollution, raise awareness among the public to demand policy change, and quickly scale up the most effective, innovative solutions.

The Clean Air Fund brings together funders, researchers, policy makers and campaigners to make this happen. As well as mobilizing at least US$100 million in funding for air pollution by the end of 2022, we are helping turn rapid research on the links between the pandemic and air pollution into practical policy solutions.

The study listed five key steps that the governments across the world should take as they prepare national stimulus packages, negotiate development assistance for the poorest communities;

The government should develop resource joint national health and environment strategies, with a specific focus on tackling air pollution.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that the sustainability of health systems is put at risk if the upstream determinants of disease, including air pollution, are not seriously tackled in a coordinated way. Health and environment departments must work closely together.

This will involve improved monitoring and forecasting of air pollution and air pollution related illness, so that the health sector can predict when spikes in air pollution-related hospitalizations might occur.

The strep will also help policymakers implement short term measures during high air pollution periods to reduce the burden on the health system.

The key objective is to work together for the greatest impact, scaling initiatives that protect both the environment and public health.

The government should also provide economic stimulus packages to industries which make ambitious and measurable commitments to clearing the air.

Stimulus packages negotiated in the months ahead could allow the acceleration of transition to low carbon economies.

The plan aims to reduce carbon emissions by 50-55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990, and to be net zero by 2050. It will do this by reshaping the economy around sustainable growth and markets.

Support the repurposing of city streets for walking and cycling.

Globally cities are using the impact of the Covid-19 crisis to implement and accelerate large-scale projects to repurpose city streets for active travel. Despite the inevitable pushback from the car lobby, momentum is growing for such measures to last beyond the pandemic.

Not only does non-motorized transport reduce crowding on public transport, helping to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it also improves air quality, tackles global warming, supports commercial activity outside of shops and is a widely accessible form of public transport globally.

Implement and enforce laws and regulations to retain and build on the improvements in air quality experienced during the pandemic.

Whilst air pollution levels have fallen considerably during the Covid-19 lockdown, some sources of pollution have remained, and pollution levels have not fallen as much as expected.

The onus is on governments to monitor and improve understanding of the trends, and act to protect populations that do not want a return to previous levels of air pollution.

Its purpose is to protect the health of citizens with pre-existing respiratory conditions and people recovering from Covid-19, for whom breathing polluted air is particularly dangerous.

Work with other governments to tackle transboundary pollution.

Just like Covid-19, air pollution knows no boundaries. While significant action can be taken locally, no country can deal with the entire problem alone.

Decades of toxic air have worsened the health of communities globally. Millions have been left with respiratory and other health problems which leave them predisposed to the most severe impacts of COVID-19, resulting in more hospitalisations and deaths especially among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Lessons must be learned from previous pandemic responses, to ensure the poorest communities benefit. An analysis of five recent epidemics found that the policies undertaken to address these outbreaks hurt the employment prospects of people with low educational attainment, while scarcely affecting those with advanced degrees.

As Lower income groups are much more likely to be affected by high levels of air pollution, cleaning the air provides an opportunity to ensure the economic stimulus benefits these people most.