The whole world must come together to fight air pollution, which kills 7 million people every year.

Air pollutants represent the biggest direct environmental health risk of our time, with 99% of the world’s population breathing unhealthy air. Exposure to air pollution greatly increases the risk of stroke, heart and lung disease, cancer and other diseases, causing more than 6.7 million premature deaths each year.

On the fourth Clean Air Day, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) met with Martina Otto, Director of the UNEP Climate and Clean Air Coalition secretariat, to explore how the world can tackle the effects of air pollution. pollution.

Why is International Clean Air Day important for blue skies?

Martina Otto (Missouri): Almost everyone breathes polluted air. However, we do not all breathe the same air: differences in air pollution levels often coincide with other inequalities. Impact at any level can have health consequences that reduce the quality of life and impose costs on the individual, our society and our economy.

Just as reducing air pollution is critical to improving human health, it is also critical to addressing the triple planetary crises of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, pollution and waste generation, and helping us achieve different sustainable development goals.

Clean Air Day raises awareness of the serious consequences of air pollution and brings together researchers, businesses, governments and individuals to address these issues.

How important is this year’s slogan “Together for Clean Air”?

MO: We have solutions to solve the problem of air pollution, but their wide-scale application requires that we all come together, working across industry boundaries and different levels of administrative responsibility. Although air pollution has a significant impact on areas near its source, it can also travel thousands of kilometers through the atmosphere.

While we cannot influence how the wind blows, we can work together to find solutions to regulatory and enforcement issues. For example, appropriate investments can turn agricultural residues into valuable resources or energy, thus reducing open burning.

Given that this is inherently a transboundary problem, effectively addressing air pollution requires finding transboundary solutions, developing cooperation between cities and their surrounding areas, as well as concluding regional agreements and a global platform that facilitates the exchange of experience between cities. .regions.

That is why the 2023 theme focuses on the need to strengthen alliances, increase investment and assume shared responsibility. We need action at all levels by all stakeholders in all sectors.

What are the main sources of air pollution?

MO: Although air pollution can come from natural sources such as volcanic eruptions and dust storms, most of the world’s population suffers from anthropogenic air pollution. The main anthropogenic causes of air pollution are electricity generation, transport, industry, heating and cooking, agriculture and waste incineration. Many of them are also sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and some pollutants are dual agents, causing both air pollution and short-term warming.

How does air pollution affect human health?

MO: Air pollution in general is a major human health issue, but we are particularly concerned about exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These particles are invisible to the human eye and are up to 40 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Because of their size, these tiny particles can travel deep into the lungs, where they cause inflammation, and can also enter the bloodstream and damage the heart.

Pollution has long-term (heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc.) and short-term (eye, nose and throat irritation, respiratory distress, cough, asthma attacks, etc.) effects.

We tend to express health impacts in terms of premature deaths. But it also affects the quality of our daily lives. Air pollution affects all age groups, but the most vulnerable people suffer the most. It may even affect the development of the unborn child.

Masked man walking in the haze
Air pollution significantly increases the risk of strokes, heart and lung disease, and cancer, causing more than 6.7 million premature deaths per year. Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss

What can we do to improve air quality?

MO: Clean air strategies vary according to local conditions. There is no one size fits all solution; Improving air quality requires many solutions in different sectors. However, we can all and must act. People must make decisions that promote clean air. Companies and industries can clean up their processes and products throughout the value chain. We must also prioritize clean air in urban planning, legislation and enforcement by local and central governments.

There are some common elements. Governments can set and enforce air pollution standards and achieve the targets set in the 2021 World Health Organization guidelines. Likewise, they should enhance their ability to observe and assess air quality. Businesses and industries can include air quality in their corporate social responsibility activities, report and control pollution emissions, and actively promote emission reduction programs.

Can the average person do anything to end air pollution?

MO: Much air pollution is structural and rooted in the economic processes that underlie modern society, so we need to start by educating people about the levels of air pollution where they live and how it affects them. Likewise, we can make eco-shopping choices and adapt the way we travel and cook. We must also demand structural changes from business, local and central governments. Individual actions may seem insignificant, but when multiplied by the number of inhabitants of the planet, they add up and make a huge contribution. So we must work together for clean air.

On September 7 every year, the world celebrates International Clean Air Day for Blue Skies. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness and promote action to improve air quality. This is a global call to find new ways to achieve environmental goals, reduce the amount of air pollution we cause, and ensure that everyone, everywhere, can enjoy their right to breathe clean air.

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