Counting the human cost of polluted cities

Published by Flemmich Webb on

By Garry Booth

Alarm bells are ringing over the human cost of air pollution in cities around the world. A new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 (1.8bn children) breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk. WHO estimates that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

The report was launched on the eve of WHO’s first ever global conference on air pollution and health in November.

Around 7m people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

The main sources of pollution are traffic, household heating, industry and (in port cities) shipping.

More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.

But developed countries also have a big problem. In cities of high-income countries in Europe, air pollution has been shown to bring down average life expectancy by anywhere between two and 24 months, depending on pollution levels, according to WHO.

Another recent study found that children living in London boroughs with high diesel pollution suffer from stunted lung capacity, putting them at risk of early death. School children living in areas that don’t meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits are at increased risk of lung disease, academics from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh found. The research, published in the Lancet Public Health journal, studied 2,000 London school children over five years.

Growing awareness of the damage to health caused by air pollution, especially in the world’s megacities where WHO’s guideline levels for air quality are frequently exceeded by more than five times, has spurred efforts to monitor and assess air quality.

China recently announced that it has extended its monthly air quality rankings to 169 cities from 74, including in the high-pollution region of Shanxi-Shaanxi in the country’s northwest, according to Reuters. The move adds to pressure on local authorities as China intensifies its campaign against air pollution.

In the US, researchers at the University of Chicago have launched a website that tells users how many years of life air pollution could cost them, according to which region of a country they live in.

The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) is based on peer-reviewed studies that quantify the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to particulate pollution and life expectancy. The results are then combined with hyper-localised, global particulate matter measurements.

The index effectively turns opaque data into “perhaps the most important metric that exists – life”, Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), said in a statement.

Other approaches simply report the numbers of people who die prematurely due to air pollution, leaving unanswered by how much these lives were cut short, Greenstone says. Also, by using highly localised satellite data, it’s possible to report life expectancy impacts at the city or similar level around the world, rather than at much more aggregated levels as in previous studies.

For example, the average resident of Delhi will live about 10 fewer years because of high pollution, while those in Beijing and Los Angeles will live almost six and nearly one fewer years, respectively.

In China and India, where levels of pollution are high, bringing particulate concentrations down to the WHO guideline would increase average life expectancy by 2.9 and 4.3 years, respectively, the AQLI report says.

Air pollution in cities should certainly be on the radar of insurers and businesses, according to Los Angeles based emerging risk analytics company Praedicat. “We definitely view air pollution as an emerging risk,” said Melissa Boudreau, Praedicat’s senior vice president of modeling. “We believe that air pollution and injury and environmental damage resulting from air pollution have the potential to result in costly litigation.”

As science evolves to demonstrate the link between commercial activity, pollution, and harms to the environment and to individuals, it is possible that the responsible parties will someday be found liable in tort, Boudreau told City Risk Index.

Prof. Mark J Nieuwenhuijsen, a world leading expert in environmental exposure assessment, with a strong focus on urban living, points out that as the main sources of air pollution are well known the short term solutions are clear.

Steps to improve air quality include restricting or eliminating motor traffic from certain areas in the city and, to a much lesser extent, only allowing low emission vehicles into the city. Cities with ports could ban the use of bunker fuel.

Longer term measures that reduce mobility will help: “Better urban and transport planning is needed to reduce dependency on cars and provide better public and active transportation, for example by making cities denser and more compact thereby reducing distances between home and work/school and other destinations,” he said.

“In general we need a systemic approach that brings together different sectors including, for example, urban and transport planning, environment, health and education,” Prof. Nieuwenhuijsen added. “And not only address air pollution but also noise, green space provision, heat island effects and physical activity – as well as climate change concerns.

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