Air pollution is the second leading cause of deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) after tobacco smoking, according to WHO.
Globally, household and ambient air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths each year, including more than 5 million caused by NCDs related to air pollution. In the WHO European Region, more than 550 000 deaths were attributable to the joint effects of household and ambient air pollution in 2016.
Tackling air pollution is a key factor in reducing premature mortality. Indeed, air pollution was included as a fifth risk factor for NCDs at the United Nations High-level Meeting on NCDs in September 2018. Acknowledging this, a policy paper was prepared as a background document for the WHO European High-level Conference on NCDs in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
In addition to cardiovascular- and respiratory-related NCDs, evidence is emerging of other effects of air pollution, such as diabetes, neurological development issues in children and neurological problems in adults, according to WHO.
Given the body of evidence on the health effects of air pollution and the magnitude of the public health impact of this environmental risk factor, any intervention will require multisectoral approaches and the engagement of multiple levels of governance.
For example, reducing air pollution from coal-fired power plants may not only diminish health risks due to particulate matter, but also prevent mercury from entering the food chain. Many policies to combat air pollution also mitigate climate change through actions in, for instance, the energy and transportation sectors. Less-polluting vehicles and public transportation reduce greenhouse gases, and walking and cycling can also facilitate physical activity.
The health sector needs to be engaged in leadership and coordination of health-related matters. It plays a crucial role in raising awareness of the health impacts of air pollution and in advocacy activities. It now needs to participate in the development of sectoral policies, in particular for sectors linked to environmental risks to health, such as energy and transport. To assume this role, the health sector may need to acquire additional competencies and be supported by new governance mechanisms.