Green Cities

Improved Air Quality Can Save Millions of Lives

Two million deaths around the world could be prevented if we improved air quality. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas, University of Minnesota, the Health Effects Institute, and the University of British Columbia showed that improving air quality could have substantial positive impacts on public health. The researchers’ model ran on the suggested World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guideline of 10μg/m3 for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

PM2.5 comprises of particulate matter of 2.5 μm or smaller and is especially dangerous to health as it can cross capillary walls, causing heart and respiratory problems.  Epidemiological studies established that long-term exposure to PM2.5 is linked to premature mortality of people with heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and lung cancer. PM2.5 sources include fires, coal power plants, cars and trucks, and agricultural and industrial emissions. In low-income countries, other sources are burning coal, wood crop and animal dung for cooking and heating, and from open burning trash.

This new study published last week in Environmental Science and Technology indicates that improving air quality in countries that already have high air standards (PM2.5 concentrations around or below the WHO guideline) should continue to decrease PM2.5 concentrations in the atmosphere.  Countries like China and India, where air pollution is extensive, require strong efforts to improve air quality; over the next 15 years,  PM2.5  levels must be reduced by 20-30% just to hold per capita mortality deaths due to air PM2.5   constant with 2015 levels.

According to Joshua Apte, the lead author, they believe their “model could help in designing strategies to protect public health.” The study also demonstrates “that continued progress on air quality can deliver major public health benefits to nearly all regions of the world,” said the paper’s co-author Michael Brauer.

The question that remains is how countries will act after knowing these estimations. Will countries invest to reduce PM2.5 emissions even more? Will polluted countries come up with a long-term plan to aggressively reduce ambient particulate matter even facing challenges to find enough financial resources to improve other basic sectors, like education? Would a conjunction effort help most polluted countries and would that be attempted?

What is clear is that developing stricter regulations regarding fine particulate matter has the potential of not only preventing premature deaths linked to this pollutant, but it could also directly or indirectly control other pollutants that are co-emitted from major PM2.5 sources. This would help mitigate health problems related to these different pollutants, as well as mitigating climate change.

We can no longer afford to ignore the science. World leaders must invest in improving their country’s air quality.


Maria Isabel da Matta, Intern