6 December 2019
Reducing air pollution in homes, cities or countries can have a dramatic effect on health almost immediately, and the benefits can far outweigh the costs, according to a review of evidence from around the world.
At a World Health Organization meeting earlier this year, respiratory doctors were asked, “If you stopped air pollution, what would you expect?” So a group led by Dean Schraufnagel of the University of Illinois at Chicago have tried to answer this question.
Even the doctors were surprised by how big the benefits can be, and how quickly they kick in. “With some of this stuff, I had to do a double take,” Schraufnagel says.
For instance, when Ireland banned smoking in workplaces in 2004, the number of people dying from any cause fell by 13 per cent after just a week. There were also big falls in heart disease, strokes and a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Non-smokers benefited the most.
These health benefits can lead to dramatic cost savings. The benefits of the 1970 Clean Air Act in the US exceeded the costs of implementing it by a factor of 32 to 1, the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated, and will amount to $2 trillion for the year 2020.
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Local measures such as shutting factories or reducing traffic can also have big benefits, especially for children. When a steel mill in Utah Valley in the US was shut for a year, hospitalisations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma fell by half.
Traffic restrictions during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, nearly halved the number of people needing medical care for asthma. And factory closures and traffic restrictions during the 2008 Beijing Olympics led a fall in deaths from heart disease and strokes.
Reducing indoor pollution also makes a difference. Replacing polluting forms of heating, such as wood-burning stoves or gas heaters that lack vents or chimneys, with cleaner forms of heating, such as heat pumps, has a variety of benefits, including reducing days off school and visits to doctors, according to studies in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Burning fuels produces greenhouse gases as well as harmful pollutants such as particulates and nitrogen dioxide, says Schraufnagel. So efforts to reduce air pollution usually help limit climate change, too, and vice versa – although there are exceptions, as a recent controversy over diesel vehicles revealed.
Journal reference: Annals of the American Thoracic Society, DOI: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.201907-538CME
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