With the latest report on toxic air, can we really keep ignoring pollution?

With the latest report on toxic air, can we really keep ignoring pollution?

Toxic air is a phrase that invokes feelings of mild discomfort. Instead, it should all give us the sensation that we need to spur ourselves into action. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports today that more than 90% of the world’s children are breathing toxic air. With the potential to cause a significant public health crisis, this is a statistic that should leave pollution naysayers sitting up to listen.

From the air we breathe inside to the smog circulating around our homes, lots of culprits are at play here. Learning more about them, their effects, and what needs to change can help us understand the WHO’s report a little better.

What does the WHO mean by toxic air?

The phrase toxic air applies to more than pollution. Overall, it includes common pollutants such as:

  • Indoor pollutants, including wood burning stoves and poorly maintained HVAC systems.
  • Overuse of gas cooking hobs.
  • Wood and paraffin burning, both inside and outside.
  • Coal-fired power plants
  • Cars, buses, and other vehicles on the road
  • Air transport

The list above isn’t exclusive. There are some toxic air sources that make their way into streams and rivers, which means we’re drinking them as well as breathing them in.

While this is an issue that’s received some degree of attention, the WHO’s report has made a timely arrival that should encourage more people to make changes. The Geneva Meeting on Air Pollution and Health is here for the first time. And, we’re also seeing the long-term effects of childhood exposure clearer than ever before.

What are the risks of breathing toxic air?

The risks of toxic air begin during the neurodevelopmental phase of pregnancy. As a result, they can lead to low birth weight, an increased risk of miscarriage, and respiratory problems throughout the child’s life.

Asthma and lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia are also high on the list. Annually, 600,000 children die of the latter as a direct result of toxic air exposure. Closely following these risks is the increased likelihood of developing a cardiovascular disease.

Although research into how heavily polluted air affects other areas of the body is in its early phases, it does suggest that exposure can lead to:

  • An increased risk of ADHD and autism,  particularly following exposure in-utero.
  • Slower cognitive development among exposed children.
  • Stunted growth.
  • Poor motor development.

Why the focus on children? According to the WHO, they’re more susceptible to the effects of pollution. Those living in urbanized areas are the first generation of their kind to encounter exposure to certain toxins. Additionally, as they’re smaller and closer to the ground, they’re absorbing more pollutants than us adults.

What should change to make things better?

There are some measures already in place. For example, in the UK counties and cities face fines when they breach illegal levels of air pollutants. As you may have guessed, regular breaches happen anyway.

The WHO suggests that switching to clean cooking fuels will have a positive impact. This is especially important in those countries where fuels that produce small airborne particles are used indoors.

Less reliance on fossil fuels and more energy efficiency were both high on the list of recommendations too. Better waste management can reduce the number of trash fires taking place, which will also have a positive effect.

In general, global governments are being encouraged to make changes that will slow the effects of toxic air. It remains to be seen just how responsive all world leaders will be.


About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.