Air Pollution: Assessing the Impact on Health

Air Pollution: Assessing the Impact on Health

In the modern world, air pollution has emerged as a silent killer. It knows no boundaries, affecting people across the globe. As per the World Health Organization's (WHO) estimates from May 2018, air pollution is a major health issue worldwide, causing around 7 million premature deaths each year. This article delves into the intricate connection between air pollution and health, exploring its consequences and the urgent need for solutions.

The Global Scope of Air Pollution

Air pollution is a universal problem. More than 9 out of 10 premature deaths due to air pollution occur in low and middle-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia and Africa. This is followed by low and middle-income countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe, and the Americas.

Air pollution is recognized as a crucial risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), causing stroke, heart diseases, lung cancer, and both acute and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma.

The Health Implications of Air Pollution

Eye Irritation, Nose and Throat Irritation, Headaches, and Coughing

Exposure to high levels of pollutants can result in eye irritation, nose and throat irritation, headaches, and even nausea and coughing. The effects are more insidious over the long term.

Ischemic Heart Diseases and Stroke

Ischemic heart disease or stroke occurs when blood circulation to the brain or heart muscle is interrupted or insufficient. Air pollution, depending on the intensity of pollutant deposition in the pulmonary tree and the toxicity of inhaled pollutants, is a triggering factor. Ultrafine particles (tobacco smoke, combustion particles, bacteria, and viruses) can reach the lungs, pass through the cellular membranes of the pulmonary alveoli, and enter the blood.

WHO estimates that 54% of air pollution-related deaths are attributable to ischemic heart diseases and stroke.


Ambient air pollution due to the use of biomass for cooking fires or heating (wood or dung) exposes people to a higher risk of contracting pneumonia, especially children. In pneumonia, the alveoli are filled with pus and fluid, making breathing painful and limiting oxygen absorption. According to WHO, 21% of premature deaths associated with air pollution result from it.

Acute or Chronic Bronchitis, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Atmospheric pollutants can weaken the bronchi, making them more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. These factors promote acute or chronic bronchitis, which can degenerate into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is characterized by a gradual narrowing and permanent obstruction of the airways and lungs. It's one of the possible causes of sudden death in adults. WHO estimates that about 19% of premature deaths related to air pollution result from it.

Lung and Respiratory Tract Cancers

A 2013 assessment conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) showed that air pollution is carcinogenic, with particulate matter being the pollutant most closely associated with an increased incidence of cancers, particularly lung cancer. A link has also been established between air pollution and an increase in the number of urinary/bladder cancers.

Pollen Allergies

Air pollution exacerbates the toxicity of pollens for two reasons. First, the fine particles present in polluted air exacerbate the aggressiveness of pollen. The pollutants attach to the pollens, weaken the grain's surface, and thus make them more toxic.

Pollution also increases pollen production; they become more numerous, larger, and more allergenic. Furthermore, fine particles breathed in irritate the respiratory and ocular mucous membranes, making the airways more receptive and facilitating the accessibility of pollens in the body. The individual's sensitivity to pollens is thus increased during pollution peaks.

Reproductive System Disorders

Pollutants are known to alter fertility, promote premature births, or even intrauterine mortality. The risk of giving birth to a low-weight child is also increased. Hypertrophy has harmful effects, causing significant intellectual developmental delay for some children.

The First Victims of Air Pollution

Infants and Young Children

Infants and young children are highly vulnerable to air pollution due to their still-developing respiratory and immune systems. A recent study conducted in Sweden indicates that inhaling particles produced by road traffic during early childhood irreversibly reduces lung capacity.

The Elderly

The elderly are particularly sensitive to air pollution due to the decrease in their local antioxidant capacities and the adaptability of their defense system.


In low and middle-income countries, women are significantly overexposed to air pollution due to their role in food preparation. They cook on stoves or fires that fill the room with thick smoke emitted by polluting fuels such as wood, animal dung, or coal.

Continuously Exposed Individuals

Individuals continuously exposed to certain pollutants are not spared by the ravages of air pollution: smokers, workers in construction, transport jobs, garages, and others.


According to WHO, the development of asthma is related to the association of a genetic predisposition and exposure to particles present in the environment.

Heart Patients

Particles tend to clog arteries and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. A study conducted in Brescia, northern Italy, highlighted a 3% increase in hospital admissions for an increase in PM10 concentration of 10 µg/m3 per day.

Air Pollution in France: A Snapshot

Public Health France estimates that air pollution causes 48,000 premature deaths each year. It's 9% of mortality in France, and up to 27 months of life expectancy lost for a 30-year-old person in the most exposed areas.

The Insidious Impact of Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution is also very impactful for asthmatics or sensitive individuals. The allergens in our homes are indeed everywhere: plants, bedding, carpets, damp areas, etc.

Protective Measures for Sensitive Individuals

The first rule to avoid crisis is, of course, avoidance, and for that, hygiene rules are reiterated. It's essential for sensitive individuals, but also for others, to regularly wash their noses (with physiological serum).


Air pollution poses a significant threat to health worldwide. It's linked to a wide range of serious health conditions, from respiratory diseases to cardiovascular disorders, cancer, and even mental health problems. The fight against air pollution is not just a fight for the environment but a fight for global health.

As we continue to strive for solutions, it's clear that achieving cleaner air is not only a matter of environmental sustainability but also a crucial health imperative. With the right strategies and commitment at all levels, it's possible to reduce the devastating health consequences of air pollution.