What You Need to Know About Climate Change and Air Pollution

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How big a problem is air pollution globally?

Air pollution is the world’s leading environmental cause of illness and premature death. Fine air pollution particles or aerosols, also known as fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 , are responsible for 6.4 million deaths every year, caused by diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, type 2 diabetes, and neonatal disorders. About 95% of these deaths occur in developing countries, where billions of people are exposed to outdoor and indoor concentrations of PM 2.5 that are multiple times higher than guidelines established by the World Health Organization. A World Bank report estimated that the cost of the health damage caused by air pollution amounts to $8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of global GDP.

Poor people, elderly people, and young children who come from poor families are the most affected and the least likely to be able to cope with the health impacts that come with air pollution. Global health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic weaken the resilience of societies. Compounding this, exposure to air pollution is linked to increased incidence of COVID-19-related hospital admissions and mortality. In addition to health, air pollution is also linked to biodiversity and ecosystem loss , and has adverse impacts on human capital . Reducing air pollution, on the other hand, not only improves health but strengthens economies. A recent World Bank study found that a 20% decrease in PM 2.5 concentration is associated with a 16% increase in employment growth rate and a 33% increase in labor productivity growth rate .

A World Bank report estimated that the cost of the health damage caused by air pollution amounts to $8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of global GDP.

How is air pollution related to climate change?

Air pollution and climate change are two sides of the same coin, but they are typically addressed separately. They should be tackled jointly, with a focus on protecting peoples’ health – particularly in low- and middle-income countries – to strengthen human capital and reduce poverty.

Air pollutants and greenhouse gases often come from the same sources, such as coal-fired power plants and diesel-fueled vehicles. Some air pollutants do not last long in the environment, notably black carbon – a part of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ). Other short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) include methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and ground-level or tropospheric ozone. SLCPs are far more potent climate warmers than carbon dioxide. Methane is a precursor of ground-level ozone, which according to the Climate and Clean air Coalition and Stockholm Environment Institute, kills about a million people each year, and is 80 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Their relatively short lifespans, coupled with their strong warming potential, means that interventions to reduce SLCP emissions can deliver climate benefits in a relatively short time. If we address short-lived climate pollutants, we gain dual benefits: better air quality and improved health where we live, and the global benefit of mitigating climate change.

A World Bank study found that PM 2.5 from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal combustion or diesel-fueled vehicle emissions is among the most toxic types of PM 2.5 . Particles from these sources are more damaging to health than particles from most other air pollution sources. Addressing these sources of PM 2.5 -- like coal combustion and traffic – would address the most toxic air pollution. Given that these sources are also key contributors to climate warming, tackling air pollution from these sources also mitigates climate change.  

What are some requirements for effectively addressing air pollution?

Measure it and monitor it . Many developing countries do not have even rudimentary infrastructure for measuring air pollution. A World Bank study found that there was only one PM 2.5 ground-level monitor per 65 million people in low-income countries , and one per 28 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa;  in contrast, there is one monitor per 370,000 people in high-income countries. This is a serious issue, because you cannot properly manage what you do not measure. If you don't know how bad your problem is, you won’t know whether anything you do to fix it is effective. Countries need to establish ground-level monitoring networks and operate and maintain them properly so they yield reliable air quality data.

Know the main sources of air pollution and their contributions to poor air quality. For example, in City A, transport may be the biggest contributor, but in City B, it could be something completely different, such as emissions from dirty cooking fuels seeping from homes into the outside environment. With this information you can target interventions appropriately to abate air pollution. There are certainly intuitive, no-regret steps cities and countries can take to tackle air pollution, such as shifting to clean buses or renewable energy. But if you want to address air pollution comprehensively, you need to understand what your own sources are.

Disseminate air quality data to the public . People have a right to know the quality of the air they're breathing. Disseminating this information exerts pressure on those who can make the needed changes. Air quality data should be easily accessible in formats that are widely understood so people can reduce their exposure to air pollution and protect vulnerable groups such as young children, the elderly, and people with health conditions that can be exacerbated by poor air quality.

What are some interventions that countries can implement to reduce air pollution?

Reducing air pollution may require physical investments or it may require policy reforms or both. Not every intervention fits every context. Interventions whose benefits (notably improved health) outweigh the costs should be selected. Part of our work at the World Bank is to incorporate climate change considerations into analysis so that the climate benefits of improving air quality can be taken into account in the decision-making process. A few examples of interventions to improve air quality in different sectors:

  • Energy : Change the energy mix to include cleaner, renewable energy sources and phase out subsidies that promote use of polluting fuels.
  • Industry: Use renewable fuels, adopt cleaner production measures, and install scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators in industrial facilities to filter particulates from emissions before they are released into the air.
  • Transport : Change from diesel to electric vehicles, install catalytic converters in vehicles to reduce toxicity of emissions, establish vehicle inspection and maintenance programs.
  • Agriculture : Discourage use of nitrogen-based fertilizers; improve nitrogen-use efficiency of agricultural soils; and improve fertilizer and manure management. Nitrogen-based fertilizers release ammonia, a precursor of secondary PM 2.5 formation. Nitrogen-based fertilizers can also be oxidized and emitted to the air as nitrous oxide, a long-lived greenhouse gas.
  • Cooking and heating : Promote clean cooking and heating solutions including clean stoves and boilers.
Part of our work at the World Bank is to incorporate climate change considerations into analysis so that the climate benefits of improving air quality can be taken into account in the decision-making process.

What is the World Bank doing to help?

The World Bank has invested about $52 billion in addressing pollution in the past two decades. However, we need to scale this up. Some successful projects that address air pollution include:

In China , we supported a program in the Hebei region , the largest contributor to air pollution in the country. The overall result was a reduction in the concentration of PM 2.5 in the atmosphere by almost 40% between 2013 and the end of 2017. The program linked loan disbursements to tangible results. Hebei issued the most stringent industrial emission standards in the country, replaced diesel buses with electric buses, coal stoves with gas stoves, and improved the efficiency of fertilizer use in agriculture. The program also supported effective use of a continuous emission monitoring system to track and enforce compliance by all major industrial enterprises in the province. The project delivered about 5 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions reductions per year through interventions such as the installation of new stoves in municipalities, and addition of a new clean energy bus fleet. The emissions reductions generated from the installation of 1,221,500 new stoves alone were equivalent to taking more than 860,000 passenger cars off the road each year.

In Peru , the World Bank is supporting a project to develop environmental information systems that includes expanding the country's air quality monitoring network to six new cities. The project is also developing new systems to disseminate information on environmental quality to the public.

In Egypt, we assessed the health impacts from environmental pollution, including the effects of ambient air pollution in Greater Cairo. We found that 19,200 people died prematurely and over 3 billion days were lived with illness in Egypt in 2017 as a result of PM 2.5 air pollution in Greater Cairo and inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene in all of Egypt. This analytical work has led to a project to reduce vehicle emissions, improve the management of solid waste, and strengthen the air and climate decision-making system in Greater Cairo .

In Vietnam , we are working with the rapidly growing city of Hanoi to simultaneously combat the issues of climate change and air pollution. We are supporting the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to improve the Air Quality Monitoring Network and develop an understanding of emissions sources, as well as an Air Quality Management Plan for the city.

In Lao PDR , the World Bank program supported the government in establishing stringent ambient air quality standards, including a standard for annual average concentrations of PM 2. in line with the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline value at the time. The program also supported the adoption of regulated procedures for sampling and analyzing PM 2.5 and PM 10 in air, and other pollutants in water.

We need to tackle air pollution and climate change challenges jointly rather than separately with a focus on protecting peoples’ health today, particularly in developing countries.

Can we expect better air quality in the future as countries decarbonize their economies?

First, we must continue to reduce poverty and meet the needs of poor people, whether through lower energy costs, ensuring cleaner air, or other means. With these goals in mind, we need to tackle air pollution and climate change challenges jointly rather than separately with a focus on protecting peoples’ health today, particularly in developing countries. The health benefits of reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels can occur in the near term. However, the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would occur over a longer timeframe. If decarbonization efforts pay attention to non-CO 2 pollutants as well, notably PM 2.5 , we cannot only expect better air quality, but also health benefits in the short term.

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The terrible paradox of air pollution and climate change

Some types of air pollution slow global warming — but at the cost of millions of deaths a year.

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“The smoke is very thick, like a dark mushroom in the sky,” said reporter Gus Abelgas in a 1991 television broadcast on the ongoing volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. “It’s just like what we saw in Hiroshima.”

After 500 years of dormancy , Mount Pinatubo’s June explosion represented one of the largest volcanic events of the 20th century. The eruption forced approximately 30,000 indigenous Aeta people to evacuate the nearby area and killed over 200 people. (An additional 426 people died in the three months following the explosion due to poor conditions in the evacuation zones.)

The eruption also sent a sulfuric gas cloud into the atmosphere 28 miles high — or five Mount Everests stacked on top of each other. While almost a foot of muddy ash covered the surrounding area, the sulfuric gas mixed with water vapor in the air, creating a layer of a reflective acidic compound that cooled the Earth for two years.

Yes, that’s right: A hot volcanic eruption made the planet cooler.

Sulfur dioxide is one of many aerosol particles that reflects the sun’s light and can act to make temperatures globally cooler than they would be otherwise. Mount Pinatubo’s eruption temporarily dropped global temps by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t sound like a huge jump, but if you were to warm the planet by an additional 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit today, that could trigger increased flooding and fire events, sweeping heat waves, super storms, and even famines.

Collectively, volcanoes around the globe emit 20 to 25 million tons of the cooling aerosol sulfur dioxide annually, but in 1991, Mount Pinatubo alone released 15 million tons of the compound. And while extreme, Mount Pinatubo’s cooling effect is not an anomaly — nor are volcanoes the only sources.

Air-polluting sources — such as volcanic eruptions , wildfires , and industrial factories — all emit particles that reflect light and cool the planet. To be absolutely clear: This is not at all to say that air pollution is a good thing. Air pollution, after all, contributes to 7 million premature deaths per year globally. Improving air quality should be a top goal across the planet.

“Many of those same human activities [that contribute to climate change ] can increase air pollution in the form of particles, and those particles are both detrimental to health and counteract, to some extent, the warming that comes from greenhouse gasses,” said Jason West, a professor in environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But in the absence of cooling aerosols, we might have nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit more warming, experts say. Given the world is on track to record its hottest summer on record, this is bad news. While the positive effects of temperature-cooling pollution do not outweigh air pollution sources’ greenhouse gas emissions or the overall cost of these pollutants to human health , they have acted to somewhat slow the rate of warming. As we reduce air pollution — which we must do — we need to be prepared for the short-term consequences of even faster global warming.

The relationship between climate change and air pollution

Greenhouse gas emissions — such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — warm the planet by absorbing light and therefore trapping heat. Electricity production (which has soared over the last few decades) and vehicles are some of the largest producers of these gasses.

Some aerosol particles — such as sulfate aerosols, particulate matter, and sea salt — prevent warming. Heat dances off bright-colored particles and is absorbed by darker particles (like soot and black carbon ). Bright, reflective aerosol particles affect Earth’s temperature by scattering sunlight in the upper part of the atmosphere, the stratosphere . They also create and brighten clouds (which then also reflect light away from the Earth’s surface) by attracting water vapor that attaches and sometimes freezes on the particles. The conglomeration of water vapor prompts the formation and thickening of clouds.

Natural sources, such as volcanoes, sea spray, and desert storms, can shoot these particles into the atmosphere. Human-made sources, like the burning of coal , also emit aerosols. Vehicles and power plants emit sulfate and nitrate particles.

While greenhouse gas emissions can persist in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries , cooling aerosol particles live in the atmosphere for only days or weeks due to their composition and climate conditions. Particle size and temperature influence these emissions’ atmospheric lifespan. As Mount Pinatubo demonstrated, the effect of cooling aerosol particles is temporary (in the case of this massive volcanic eruption, the aerosol effect was felt for approximately two years) but they can be very strong. After the far larger eruption of Mount Tambora, 1816 became known as “ the year without a summer ,” as temperatures dropped by as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit around the world, crops failed, and tens of thousands of people died from hunger .

In 2018, researchers from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, NASA , the University of Leeds, the University of Oxford, and Climate Analytics found that ending the emission of greenhouse gasses will also end human-caused aerosol emissions. The absence of these aerosols will result in global heating and increased rain, especially in locations where aerosol emissions were once regularly emitted. The world must prepare for a temporary spike in warmth in order to address the even more dangerous long-term effects of climate change and air pollution.

If human-caused air pollution disappeared this instant, the world would experience the negative warming consequences of past greenhouse emissions for decades to come, with virtually no lingering cooling effect from the previously emitted particles, said West.

“Let’s say we emitted greenhouse gases, CO2, and [aerosol cooling] particles at the same rate forever. Eventually, the greenhouse gases are going to win because they’re going to continue to accumulate,” he said. “Whereas the particle concentration would stay the same because it’s short-lived.” Ultimately, aerosol particles have masked some of greenhouse gasses’ effects, but they won’t do so forever.

Why we need cleaner air

Despite evidence that keeping cooling aerosol particles from polluting sources would prevent some level of global warming, doing so is not an option. One, because they share a source with greenhouse gasses, and two, because they are unequivocally detrimental to human health.

Air Quality Index (AQI) levels are used to measure the level of air pollution and range between 0 to 500. Even at relatively moderate levels (101-150 AQI), air pollution causes eye and throat irritation. But, as the intensity and length of exposure increase, so do the consequences.

PM2.5, a type of fine-particle pollutant, is one of the most harmful air pollutants to human health currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure to high levels can cause heart attacks, strokes, and severe respiratory problems, and even initiate the onset of chronic conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. The effects are particularly dangerous for those suffering from preexisting lung and heart conditions like obstructive pulmonary disease.

“All the things we know that cigarette smoking can cause, like cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, likewise, fine particles do that,” said Patrick Kinney, a professor of urban health for Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Of course, we don’t breathe as much [fine particles] as a cigarette smoker does ... but it’s the same kind of effect.”

Infants and children are particularly susceptible to developing cancers and cognitive impairments due to air pollution. Low- and middle-income countries, primarily in Asia and Africa, account for more than 90 percent of these deaths .

“When we look over the planet, aerosols can have a different influence,” said West. “We expect aerosols to have a bigger effect in the Northern Hemisphere — where most of the pollution sources are — compared to the Southern Hemisphere, which is relatively more pristine. It’s covered by ocean and there’s much less population.” Two-thirds of the African continent and most of Asia lie in the Northern Hemisphere .

Vehicle exhaust and coal combustion contribute to particularly severe air pollution in densely populated areas within Asia. China and India , the two most populous countries in the world, emit over half of the world’s PM2.5 emissions , and in both countries, air pollution contributes to the deaths of more than 2 million people a year.

“We need to switch away from fossil fuels toward renewables ,” said West, “which has benefits for both air pollution and for the climate.”

What will happen to global temperatures?

If humans keep burning fossil fuels, air pollution will worsen, and so will climate change. Consequently, a warmer planet will make our air quality worse . Hot weather creates the perfect conditions for the reactions that produce ozone (a greenhouse gas). And heat waves can cause droughts. During a drought, forest fires, which produce particle pollution, are more common. “Air pollution affects climate change and climate change affects air pollution,” said Kinney.

But air pollution is not the only — or most important — byproduct of climate change, he added. Global warming will bring a host of other problems, including extreme heat waves , hurricanes, wildfires , and the proliferation of infectious diseases .

“This is not new. We’ve had storms always and we’ve had heat waves always,” said Kinney. “But what climate change is doing is making those extremes more extreme, and pushing the sort of upper tail of the extreme distribution for temperature and also for storm intensity.”

Across the world, natural disasters , including extreme winter storms, wildfires, and flooding, are wreaking havoc on communities that previously never faced such events. “It’s worse than a new normal. I call it a new abnormal,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, previously told Vox .

Preventing further climate change is, therefore, the greatest concern, and given greenhouse gases and aerosol cooling particles often stem from the same sources, it’s very difficult to isolate the emissions.

“There are some particles that are warming, such as black carbon particles. They have a warming influence, as well as being bad for health,” said West. “So if we can target black carbon-related emissions, then we could have a benefit for both problems — for both air pollution and health, and for climate. But ... many sources are sources of both black carbon and cooling aerosols.”

Even if the warming and cooling pollutants had different sources, the health outcomes from aerosol particles — heart attacks, strokes, chronic diseases — mean keeping them around isn’t a viable option.

Thus, scientists and researchers are now looking for ways to mimic the cooling aerosol effect without the same negative impact through a practice known as geoengineering . This field encompasses methods meant to offset the impacts of climate change by influencing the environment.

One geoengineering method involves injecting salt particles into the air to brighten and increase cloud coverage over the ocean. Despite research dating back to 2012 showing that salt particles cannot slow climate change at a meaningful rate, researchers continue to explore the idea.

A number of other ideas have been proposed and tested, including producing artificial clouds and placing mirrors in space. Producing clouds would entail shooting sulfur dioxide (the same stuff Mount Pinatubo spat out) into the atmosphere, but initial studies of the practice showed that starting and then stopping the method could lead to dire unknown effects. The consequences of space mirrors seem less deadly but are also less understood, and embarking on such a program would cost trillions of dollars. All of these approaches are also politically contentious.

While none of these methods is ready for wide-scale use, interest in geoengineering is rising. In late June, the Biden administration released a report indicating the White House is open to geoengineering research aimed at cooling the planet, specifically the “scientific and societal implications of solar radiation modification.” No concrete plans or policies in this field have yet been made, indicating a level of necessary caution given concerns about geoengineering’s little-understood ramifications.

Altering the delicate balance of the Earth’s climate system through intentional intervention carries inherent risks, including crop and wildlife die-offs and unintended shifts in weather patterns. Some methods could create massive droughts in some parts of the world, or even deplete the ozone layer further.

Another concern is “ termination shock .” If geoengineering technology went into effect and was then abruptly ended (by choice or by unpredictable events like terrorist attacks or natural disasters) then the resulting warming would be even more significant and catastrophic than current projections.

Additionally, given that one country’s decision to engage in a geoengineering method could have global repercussions, scientists and policymakers continue to debate the political repercussions and oversight of this technology.

And before any of these ideas can come to fruition, scientists and researchers must develop a better understanding of the true impact of the aerosol cooling effect.

“We know that aerosol particles that come from human emissions have the potential to have a cooling effect on climate,” said Casey Wall, a postdoctoral researcher studying climate science at the University of Oslo. “And we know it can offset some of the warming effects from human greenhouse gas emissions. But the really big debate right now in the climate research community is just how much that aerosol cooling effect offsets the warming from greenhouse gases.”

Air pollution’s relationship with and on climate change is complex, but at the end of the day, cleaner air will lead to a healthier planet. “Air pollution as we commonly talk about it is a bad thing overall, even though it has this effect of cooling the climate,” said Wall. “The effects on human health overall outweigh that.”

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Environmental and Health Impacts of Air Pollution: A Review

Ioannis manisalidis.

1 Delphis S.A., Kifisia, Greece

2 Laboratory of Hygiene and Environmental Protection, Faculty of Medicine, Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece

Elisavet Stavropoulou

3 Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV), Service de Médicine Interne, Lausanne, Switzerland

Agathangelos Stavropoulos

4 School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom

Eugenia Bezirtzoglou

One of our era's greatest scourges is air pollution, on account not only of its impact on climate change but also its impact on public and individual health due to increasing morbidity and mortality. There are many pollutants that are major factors in disease in humans. Among them, Particulate Matter (PM), particles of variable but very small diameter, penetrate the respiratory system via inhalation, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reproductive and central nervous system dysfunctions, and cancer. Despite the fact that ozone in the stratosphere plays a protective role against ultraviolet irradiation, it is harmful when in high concentration at ground level, also affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular system. Furthermore, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are all considered air pollutants that are harmful to humans. Carbon monoxide can even provoke direct poisoning when breathed in at high levels. Heavy metals such as lead, when absorbed into the human body, can lead to direct poisoning or chronic intoxication, depending on exposure. Diseases occurring from the aforementioned substances include principally respiratory problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma, bronchiolitis, and also lung cancer, cardiovascular events, central nervous system dysfunctions, and cutaneous diseases. Last but not least, climate change resulting from environmental pollution affects the geographical distribution of many infectious diseases, as do natural disasters. The only way to tackle this problem is through public awareness coupled with a multidisciplinary approach by scientific experts; national and international organizations must address the emergence of this threat and propose sustainable solutions.

Approach to the Problem

The interactions between humans and their physical surroundings have been extensively studied, as multiple human activities influence the environment. The environment is a coupling of the biotic (living organisms and microorganisms) and the abiotic (hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere).

Pollution is defined as the introduction into the environment of substances harmful to humans and other living organisms. Pollutants are harmful solids, liquids, or gases produced in higher than usual concentrations that reduce the quality of our environment.

Human activities have an adverse effect on the environment by polluting the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil in which plants grow. Although the industrial revolution was a great success in terms of technology, society, and the provision of multiple services, it also introduced the production of huge quantities of pollutants emitted into the air that are harmful to human health. Without any doubt, the global environmental pollution is considered an international public health issue with multiple facets. Social, economic, and legislative concerns and lifestyle habits are related to this major problem. Clearly, urbanization and industrialization are reaching unprecedented and upsetting proportions worldwide in our era. Anthropogenic air pollution is one of the biggest public health hazards worldwide, given that it accounts for about 9 million deaths per year ( 1 ).

Without a doubt, all of the aforementioned are closely associated with climate change, and in the event of danger, the consequences can be severe for mankind ( 2 ). Climate changes and the effects of global planetary warming seriously affect multiple ecosystems, causing problems such as food safety issues, ice and iceberg melting, animal extinction, and damage to plants ( 3 , 4 ).

Air pollution has various health effects. The health of susceptible and sensitive individuals can be impacted even on low air pollution days. Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, respiratory disease, and high rates of hospitalization (a measurement of morbidity).

The long-term effects associated with air pollution are chronic asthma, pulmonary insufficiency, cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular mortality. According to a Swedish cohort study, diabetes seems to be induced after long-term air pollution exposure ( 5 ). Moreover, air pollution seems to have various malign health effects in early human life, such as respiratory, cardiovascular, mental, and perinatal disorders ( 3 ), leading to infant mortality or chronic disease in adult age ( 6 ).

National reports have mentioned the increased risk of morbidity and mortality ( 1 ). These studies were conducted in many places around the world and show a correlation between daily ranges of particulate matter (PM) concentration and daily mortality. Climate shifts and global planetary warming ( 3 ) could aggravate the situation. Besides, increased hospitalization (an index of morbidity) has been registered among the elderly and susceptible individuals for specific reasons. Fine and ultrafine particulate matter seems to be associated with more serious illnesses ( 6 ), as it can invade the deepest parts of the airways and more easily reach the bloodstream.

Air pollution mainly affects those living in large urban areas, where road emissions contribute the most to the degradation of air quality. There is also a danger of industrial accidents, where the spread of a toxic fog can be fatal to the populations of the surrounding areas. The dispersion of pollutants is determined by many parameters, most notably atmospheric stability and wind ( 6 ).

In developing countries ( 7 ), the problem is more serious due to overpopulation and uncontrolled urbanization along with the development of industrialization. This leads to poor air quality, especially in countries with social disparities and a lack of information on sustainable management of the environment. The use of fuels such as wood fuel or solid fuel for domestic needs due to low incomes exposes people to bad-quality, polluted air at home. It is of note that three billion people around the world are using the above sources of energy for their daily heating and cooking needs ( 8 ). In developing countries, the women of the household seem to carry the highest risk for disease development due to their longer duration exposure to the indoor air pollution ( 8 , 9 ). Due to its fast industrial development and overpopulation, China is one of the Asian countries confronting serious air pollution problems ( 10 , 11 ). The lung cancer mortality observed in China is associated with fine particles ( 12 ). As stated already, long-term exposure is associated with deleterious effects on the cardiovascular system ( 3 , 5 ). However, it is interesting to note that cardiovascular diseases have mostly been observed in developed and high-income countries rather than in the developing low-income countries exposed highly to air pollution ( 13 ). Extreme air pollution is recorded in India, where the air quality reaches hazardous levels. New Delhi is one of the more polluted cities in India. Flights in and out of New Delhi International Airport are often canceled due to the reduced visibility associated with air pollution. Pollution is occurring both in urban and rural areas in India due to the fast industrialization, urbanization, and rise in use of motorcycle transportation. Nevertheless, biomass combustion associated with heating and cooking needs and practices is a major source of household air pollution in India and in Nepal ( 14 , 15 ). There is spatial heterogeneity in India, as areas with diverse climatological conditions and population and education levels generate different indoor air qualities, with higher PM 2.5 observed in North Indian states (557–601 μg/m 3 ) compared to the Southern States (183–214 μg/m 3 ) ( 16 , 17 ). The cold climate of the North Indian areas may be the main reason for this, as longer periods at home and more heating are necessary compared to in the tropical climate of Southern India. Household air pollution in India is associated with major health effects, especially in women and young children, who stay indoors for longer periods. Chronic obstructive respiratory disease (CORD) and lung cancer are mostly observed in women, while acute lower respiratory disease is seen in young children under 5 years of age ( 18 ).

Accumulation of air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide and smoke, reaching 1,500 mg/m3, resulted in an increase in the number of deaths (4,000 deaths) in December 1952 in London and in 1963 in New York City (400 deaths) ( 19 ). An association of pollution with mortality was reported on the basis of monitoring of outdoor pollution in six US metropolitan cities ( 20 ). In every case, it seems that mortality was closely related to the levels of fine, inhalable, and sulfate particles more than with the levels of total particulate pollution, aerosol acidity, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen dioxide ( 20 ).

Furthermore, extremely high levels of pollution are reported in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, followed by Milan, Ankara, Melbourne, Tokyo, and Moscow ( 19 ).

Based on the magnitude of the public health impact, it is certain that different kinds of interventions should be taken into account. Success and effectiveness in controlling air pollution, specifically at the local level, have been reported. Adequate technological means are applied considering the source and the nature of the emission as well as its impact on health and the environment. The importance of point sources and non-point sources of air pollution control is reported by Schwela and Köth-Jahr ( 21 ). Without a doubt, a detailed emission inventory must record all sources in a given area. Beyond considering the above sources and their nature, topography and meteorology should also be considered, as stated previously. Assessment of the control policies and methods is often extrapolated from the local to the regional and then to the global scale. Air pollution may be dispersed and transported from one region to another area located far away. Air pollution management means the reduction to acceptable levels or possible elimination of air pollutants whose presence in the air affects our health or the environmental ecosystem. Private and governmental entities and authorities implement actions to ensure the air quality ( 22 ). Air quality standards and guidelines were adopted for the different pollutants by the WHO and EPA as a tool for the management of air quality ( 1 , 23 ). These standards have to be compared to the emissions inventory standards by causal analysis and dispersion modeling in order to reveal the problematic areas ( 24 ). Inventories are generally based on a combination of direct measurements and emissions modeling ( 24 ).

As an example, we state here the control measures at the source through the use of catalytic converters in cars. These are devices that turn the pollutants and toxic gases produced from combustion engines into less-toxic pollutants by catalysis through redox reactions ( 25 ). In Greece, the use of private cars was restricted by tracking their license plates in order to reduce traffic congestion during rush hour ( 25 ).

Concerning industrial emissions, collectors and closed systems can keep the air pollution to the minimal standards imposed by legislation ( 26 ).

Current strategies to improve air quality require an estimation of the economic value of the benefits gained from proposed programs. These proposed programs by public authorities, and directives are issued with guidelines to be respected.

In Europe, air quality limit values AQLVs (Air Quality Limit Values) are issued for setting off planning claims ( 27 ). In the USA, the NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) establish the national air quality limit values ( 27 ). While both standards and directives are based on different mechanisms, significant success has been achieved in the reduction of overall emissions and associated health and environmental effects ( 27 ). The European Directive identifies geographical areas of risk exposure as monitoring/assessment zones to record the emission sources and levels of air pollution ( 27 ), whereas the USA establishes global geographical air quality criteria according to the severity of their air quality problem and records all sources of the pollutants and their precursors ( 27 ).

In this vein, funds have been financing, directly or indirectly, projects related to air quality along with the technical infrastructure to maintain good air quality. These plans focus on an inventory of databases from air quality environmental planning awareness campaigns. Moreover, pollution measures of air emissions may be taken for vehicles, machines, and industries in urban areas.

Technological innovation can only be successful if it is able to meet the needs of society. In this sense, technology must reflect the decision-making practices and procedures of those involved in risk assessment and evaluation and act as a facilitator in providing information and assessments to enable decision makers to make the best decisions possible. Summarizing the aforementioned in order to design an effective air quality control strategy, several aspects must be considered: environmental factors and ambient air quality conditions, engineering factors and air pollutant characteristics, and finally, economic operating costs for technological improvement and administrative and legal costs. Considering the economic factor, competitiveness through neoliberal concepts is offering a solution to environmental problems ( 22 ).

The development of environmental governance, along with technological progress, has initiated the deployment of a dialogue. Environmental politics has created objections and points of opposition between different political parties, scientists, media, and governmental and non-governmental organizations ( 22 ). Radical environmental activism actions and movements have been created ( 22 ). The rise of the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are many times examined as to whether and in which way they have influenced means of communication and social movements such as activism ( 28 ). Since the 1990s, the term “digital activism” has been used increasingly and in many different disciplines ( 29 ). Nowadays, multiple digital technologies can be used to produce a digital activism outcome on environmental issues. More specifically, devices with online capabilities such as computers or mobile phones are being used as a way to pursue change in political and social affairs ( 30 ).

In the present paper, we focus on the sources of environmental pollution in relation to public health and propose some solutions and interventions that may be of interest to environmental legislators and decision makers.

Sources of Exposure

It is known that the majority of environmental pollutants are emitted through large-scale human activities such as the use of industrial machinery, power-producing stations, combustion engines, and cars. Because these activities are performed at such a large scale, they are by far the major contributors to air pollution, with cars estimated to be responsible for approximately 80% of today's pollution ( 31 ). Some other human activities are also influencing our environment to a lesser extent, such as field cultivation techniques, gas stations, fuel tanks heaters, and cleaning procedures ( 32 ), as well as several natural sources, such as volcanic and soil eruptions and forest fires.

The classification of air pollutants is based mainly on the sources producing pollution. Therefore, it is worth mentioning the four main sources, following the classification system: Major sources, Area sources, Mobile sources, and Natural sources.

Major sources include the emission of pollutants from power stations, refineries, and petrochemicals, the chemical and fertilizer industries, metallurgical and other industrial plants, and, finally, municipal incineration.

Indoor area sources include domestic cleaning activities, dry cleaners, printing shops, and petrol stations.

Mobile sources include automobiles, cars, railways, airways, and other types of vehicles.

Finally, natural sources include, as stated previously, physical disasters ( 33 ) such as forest fire, volcanic erosion, dust storms, and agricultural burning.

However, many classification systems have been proposed. Another type of classification is a grouping according to the recipient of the pollution, as follows:

Air pollution is determined as the presence of pollutants in the air in large quantities for long periods. Air pollutants are dispersed particles, hydrocarbons, CO, CO 2 , NO, NO 2 , SO 3 , etc.

Water pollution is organic and inorganic charge and biological charge ( 10 ) at high levels that affect the water quality ( 34 , 35 ).

Soil pollution occurs through the release of chemicals or the disposal of wastes, such as heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and pesticides.

Air pollution can influence the quality of soil and water bodies by polluting precipitation, falling into water and soil environments ( 34 , 36 ). Notably, the chemistry of the soil can be amended due to acid precipitation by affecting plants, cultures, and water quality ( 37 ). Moreover, movement of heavy metals is favored by soil acidity, and metals are so then moving into the watery environment. It is known that heavy metals such as aluminum are noxious to wildlife and fishes. Soil quality seems to be of importance, as soils with low calcium carbonate levels are at increased jeopardy from acid rain. Over and above rain, snow and particulate matter drip into watery ' bodies ( 36 , 38 ).

Lastly, pollution is classified following type of origin:

Radioactive and nuclear pollution , releasing radioactive and nuclear pollutants into water, air, and soil during nuclear explosions and accidents, from nuclear weapons, and through handling or disposal of radioactive sewage.

Radioactive materials can contaminate surface water bodies and, being noxious to the environment, plants, animals, and humans. It is known that several radioactive substances such as radium and uranium concentrate in the bones and can cause cancers ( 38 , 39 ).

Noise pollution is produced by machines, vehicles, traffic noises, and musical installations that are harmful to our hearing.

The World Health Organization introduced the term DALYs. The DALYs for a disease or health condition is defined as the sum of the Years of Life Lost (YLL) due to premature mortality in the population and the Years Lost due to Disability (YLD) for people living with the health condition or its consequences ( 39 ). In Europe, air pollution is the main cause of disability-adjusted life years lost (DALYs), followed by noise pollution. The potential relationships of noise and air pollution with health have been studied ( 40 ). The study found that DALYs related to noise were more important than those related to air pollution, as the effects of environmental noise on cardiovascular disease were independent of air pollution ( 40 ). Environmental noise should be counted as an independent public health risk ( 40 ).

Environmental pollution occurs when changes in the physical, chemical, or biological constituents of the environment (air masses, temperature, climate, etc.) are produced.

Pollutants harm our environment either by increasing levels above normal or by introducing harmful toxic substances. Primary pollutants are directly produced from the above sources, and secondary pollutants are emitted as by-products of the primary ones. Pollutants can be biodegradable or non-biodegradable and of natural origin or anthropogenic, as stated previously. Moreover, their origin can be a unique source (point-source) or dispersed sources.

Pollutants have differences in physical and chemical properties, explaining the discrepancy in their capacity for producing toxic effects. As an example, we state here that aerosol compounds ( 41 – 43 ) have a greater toxicity than gaseous compounds due to their tiny size (solid or liquid) in the atmosphere; they have a greater penetration capacity. Gaseous compounds are eliminated more easily by our respiratory system ( 41 ). These particles are able to damage lungs and can even enter the bloodstream ( 41 ), leading to the premature deaths of millions of people yearly. Moreover, the aerosol acidity ([H+]) seems to considerably enhance the production of secondary organic aerosols (SOA), but this last aspect is not supported by other scientific teams ( 38 ).

Climate and Pollution

Air pollution and climate change are closely related. Climate is the other side of the same coin that reduces the quality of our Earth ( 44 ). Pollutants such as black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and aerosols affect the amount of incoming sunlight. As a result, the temperature of the Earth is increasing, resulting in the melting of ice, icebergs, and glaciers.

In this vein, climatic changes will affect the incidence and prevalence of both residual and imported infections in Europe. Climate and weather affect the duration, timing, and intensity of outbreaks strongly and change the map of infectious diseases in the globe ( 45 ). Mosquito-transmitted parasitic or viral diseases are extremely climate-sensitive, as warming firstly shortens the pathogen incubation period and secondly shifts the geographic map of the vector. Similarly, water-warming following climate changes leads to a high incidence of waterborne infections. Recently, in Europe, eradicated diseases seem to be emerging due to the migration of population, for example, cholera, poliomyelitis, tick-borne encephalitis, and malaria ( 46 ).

The spread of epidemics is associated with natural climate disasters and storms, which seem to occur more frequently nowadays ( 47 ). Malnutrition and disequilibration of the immune system are also associated with the emerging infections affecting public health ( 48 ).

The Chikungunya virus “took the airplane” from the Indian Ocean to Europe, as outbreaks of the disease were registered in Italy ( 49 ) as well as autochthonous cases in France ( 50 ).

An increase in cryptosporidiosis in the United Kingdom and in the Czech Republic seems to have occurred following flooding ( 36 , 51 ).

As stated previously, aerosols compounds are tiny in size and considerably affect the climate. They are able to dissipate sunlight (the albedo phenomenon) by dispersing a quarter of the sun's rays back to space and have cooled the global temperature over the last 30 years ( 52 ).

Air Pollutants

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports on six major air pollutants, namely particle pollution, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. Air pollution can have a disastrous effect on all components of the environment, including groundwater, soil, and air. Additionally, it poses a serious threat to living organisms. In this vein, our interest is mainly to focus on these pollutants, as they are related to more extensive and severe problems in human health and environmental impact. Acid rain, global warming, the greenhouse effect, and climate changes have an important ecological impact on air pollution ( 53 ).

Particulate Matter (PM) and Health

Studies have shown a relationship between particulate matter (PM) and adverse health effects, focusing on either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) PM exposure.

Particulate matter (PM) is usually formed in the atmosphere as a result of chemical reactions between the different pollutants. The penetration of particles is closely dependent on their size ( 53 ). Particulate Matter (PM) was defined as a term for particles by the United States Environmental Protection Agency ( 54 ). Particulate matter (PM) pollution includes particles with diameters of 10 micrometers (μm) or smaller, called PM 10 , and extremely fine particles with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers (μm) and smaller.

Particulate matter contains tiny liquid or solid droplets that can be inhaled and cause serious health effects ( 55 ). Particles <10 μm in diameter (PM 10 ) after inhalation can invade the lungs and even reach the bloodstream. Fine particles, PM 2.5 , pose a greater risk to health ( 6 , 56 ) ( Table 1 ).

Penetrability according to particle size.

Multiple epidemiological studies have been performed on the health effects of PM. A positive relation was shown between both short-term and long-term exposures of PM 2.5 and acute nasopharyngitis ( 56 ). In addition, long-term exposure to PM for years was found to be related to cardiovascular diseases and infant mortality.

Those studies depend on PM 2.5 monitors and are restricted in terms of study area or city area due to a lack of spatially resolved daily PM 2.5 concentration data and, in this way, are not representative of the entire population. Following a recent epidemiological study by the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health (Boston, MA) ( 57 ), it was reported that, as PM 2.5 concentrations vary spatially, an exposure error (Berkson error) seems to be produced, and the relative magnitudes of the short- and long-term effects are not yet completely elucidated. The team developed a PM 2.5 exposure model based on remote sensing data for assessing short- and long-term human exposures ( 57 ). This model permits spatial resolution in short-term effects plus the assessment of long-term effects in the whole population.

Moreover, respiratory diseases and affection of the immune system are registered as long-term chronic effects ( 58 ). It is worth noting that people with asthma, pneumonia, diabetes, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are especially susceptible and vulnerable to the effects of PM. PM 2.5 , followed by PM 10 , are strongly associated with diverse respiratory system diseases ( 59 ), as their size permits them to pierce interior spaces ( 60 ). The particles produce toxic effects according to their chemical and physical properties. The components of PM 10 and PM 2.5 can be organic (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, benzene, 1-3 butadiene) or inorganic (carbon, chlorides, nitrates, sulfates, metals) in nature ( 55 ).

Particulate Matter (PM) is divided into four main categories according to type and size ( 61 ) ( Table 2 ).

Types and sizes of particulate Matter (PM).

Gas contaminants include PM in aerial masses.

Particulate contaminants include contaminants such as smog, soot, tobacco smoke, oil smoke, fly ash, and cement dust.

Biological Contaminants are microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, mold, and bacterial spores), cat allergens, house dust and allergens, and pollen.

Types of Dust include suspended atmospheric dust, settling dust, and heavy dust.

Finally, another fact is that the half-lives of PM 10 and PM 2.5 particles in the atmosphere is extended due to their tiny dimensions; this permits their long-lasting suspension in the atmosphere and even their transfer and spread to distant destinations where people and the environment may be exposed to the same magnitude of pollution ( 53 ). They are able to change the nutrient balance in watery ecosystems, damage forests and crops, and acidify water bodies.

As stated, PM 2.5 , due to their tiny size, are causing more serious health effects. These aforementioned fine particles are the main cause of the “haze” formation in different metropolitan areas ( 12 , 13 , 61 ).

Ozone Impact in the Atmosphere

Ozone (O 3 ) is a gas formed from oxygen under high voltage electric discharge ( 62 ). It is a strong oxidant, 52% stronger than chlorine. It arises in the stratosphere, but it could also arise following chain reactions of photochemical smog in the troposphere ( 63 ).

Ozone can travel to distant areas from its initial source, moving with air masses ( 64 ). It is surprising that ozone levels over cities are low in contrast to the increased amounts occuring in urban areas, which could become harmful for cultures, forests, and vegetation ( 65 ) as it is reducing carbon assimilation ( 66 ). Ozone reduces growth and yield ( 47 , 48 ) and affects the plant microflora due to its antimicrobial capacity ( 67 , 68 ). In this regard, ozone acts upon other natural ecosystems, with microflora ( 69 , 70 ) and animal species changing their species composition ( 71 ). Ozone increases DNA damage in epidermal keratinocytes and leads to impaired cellular function ( 72 ).

Ground-level ozone (GLO) is generated through a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen and VOCs emitted from natural sources and/or following anthropogenic activities.

Ozone uptake usually occurs by inhalation. Ozone affects the upper layers of the skin and the tear ducts ( 73 ). A study of short-term exposure of mice to high levels of ozone showed malondialdehyde formation in the upper skin (epidermis) but also depletion in vitamins C and E. It is likely that ozone levels are not interfering with the skin barrier function and integrity to predispose to skin disease ( 74 ).

Due to the low water-solubility of ozone, inhaled ozone has the capacity to penetrate deeply into the lungs ( 75 ).

Toxic effects induced by ozone are registered in urban areas all over the world, causing biochemical, morphologic, functional, and immunological disorders ( 76 ).

The European project (APHEA2) focuses on the acute effects of ambient ozone concentrations on mortality ( 77 ). Daily ozone concentrations compared to the daily number of deaths were reported from different European cities for a 3-year period. During the warm period of the year, an observed increase in ozone concentration was associated with an increase in the daily number of deaths (0.33%), in the number of respiratory deaths (1.13%), and in the number of cardiovascular deaths (0.45%). No effect was observed during wintertime.

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide is produced by fossil fuel when combustion is incomplete. The symptoms of poisoning due to inhaling carbon monoxide include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and, finally, loss of consciousness.

The affinity of carbon monoxide to hemoglobin is much greater than that of oxygen. In this vein, serious poisoning may occur in people exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide for a long period of time. Due to the loss of oxygen as a result of the competitive binding of carbon monoxide, hypoxia, ischemia, and cardiovascular disease are observed.

Carbon monoxide affects the greenhouses gases that are tightly connected to global warming and climate. This should lead to an increase in soil and water temperatures, and extreme weather conditions or storms may occur ( 68 ).

However, in laboratory and field experiments, it has been seen to produce increased plant growth ( 78 ).

Nitrogen Oxide (NO 2 )

Nitrogen oxide is a traffic-related pollutant, as it is emitted from automobile motor engines ( 79 , 80 ). It is an irritant of the respiratory system as it penetrates deep in the lung, inducing respiratory diseases, coughing, wheezing, dyspnea, bronchospasm, and even pulmonary edema when inhaled at high levels. It seems that concentrations over 0.2 ppm produce these adverse effects in humans, while concentrations higher than 2.0 ppm affect T-lymphocytes, particularly the CD8+ cells and NK cells that produce our immune response ( 81 ).It is reported that long-term exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can be responsible for chronic lung disease. Long-term exposure to NO 2 can impair the sense of smell ( 81 ).

However, systems other than respiratory ones can be involved, as symptoms such as eye, throat, and nose irritation have been registered ( 81 ).

High levels of nitrogen dioxide are deleterious to crops and vegetation, as they have been observed to reduce crop yield and plant growth efficiency. Moreover, NO 2 can reduce visibility and discolor fabrics ( 81 ).

Sulfur Dioxide (SO 2 )

Sulfur dioxide is a harmful gas that is emitted mainly from fossil fuel consumption or industrial activities. The annual standard for SO 2 is 0.03 ppm ( 82 ). It affects human, animal, and plant life. Susceptible people as those with lung disease, old people, and children, who present a higher risk of damage. The major health problems associated with sulfur dioxide emissions in industrialized areas are respiratory irritation, bronchitis, mucus production, and bronchospasm, as it is a sensory irritant and penetrates deep into the lung converted into bisulfite and interacting with sensory receptors, causing bronchoconstriction. Moreover, skin redness, damage to the eyes (lacrimation and corneal opacity) and mucous membranes, and worsening of pre-existing cardiovascular disease have been observed ( 81 ).

Environmental adverse effects, such as acidification of soil and acid rain, seem to be associated with sulfur dioxide emissions ( 83 ).

Lead is a heavy metal used in different industrial plants and emitted from some petrol motor engines, batteries, radiators, waste incinerators, and waste waters ( 84 ).

Moreover, major sources of lead pollution in the air are metals, ore, and piston-engine aircraft. Lead poisoning is a threat to public health due to its deleterious effects upon humans, animals, and the environment, especially in the developing countries.

Exposure to lead can occur through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption. Trans- placental transport of lead was also reported, as lead passes through the placenta unencumbered ( 85 ). The younger the fetus is, the more harmful the toxic effects. Lead toxicity affects the fetal nervous system; edema or swelling of the brain is observed ( 86 ). Lead, when inhaled, accumulates in the blood, soft tissue, liver, lung, bones, and cardiovascular, nervous, and reproductive systems. Moreover, loss of concentration and memory, as well as muscle and joint pain, were observed in adults ( 85 , 86 ).

Children and newborns ( 87 ) are extremely susceptible even to minimal doses of lead, as it is a neurotoxicant and causes learning disabilities, impairment of memory, hyperactivity, and even mental retardation.

Elevated amounts of lead in the environment are harmful to plants and crop growth. Neurological effects are observed in vertebrates and animals in association with high lead levels ( 88 ).

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons(PAHs)

The distribution of PAHs is ubiquitous in the environment, as the atmosphere is the most important means of their dispersal. They are found in coal and in tar sediments. Moreover, they are generated through incomplete combustion of organic matter as in the cases of forest fires, incineration, and engines ( 89 ). PAH compounds, such as benzopyrene, acenaphthylene, anthracene, and fluoranthene are recognized as toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic substances. They are an important risk factor for lung cancer ( 89 ).

Volatile Organic Compounds(VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as toluene, benzene, ethylbenzene, and xylene ( 90 ), have been found to be associated with cancer in humans ( 91 ). The use of new products and materials has actually resulted in increased concentrations of VOCs. VOCs pollute indoor air ( 90 ) and may have adverse effects on human health ( 91 ). Short-term and long-term adverse effects on human health are observed. VOCs are responsible for indoor air smells. Short-term exposure is found to cause irritation of eyes, nose, throat, and mucosal membranes, while those of long duration exposure include toxic reactions ( 92 ). Predictable assessment of the toxic effects of complex VOC mixtures is difficult to estimate, as these pollutants can have synergic, antagonistic, or indifferent effects ( 91 , 93 ).

Dioxins originate from industrial processes but also come from natural processes, such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions. They accumulate in foods such as meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish, and especially in the fatty tissue of animals ( 94 ).

Short-period exhibition to high dioxin concentrations may result in dark spots and lesions on the skin ( 94 ). Long-term exposure to dioxins can cause developmental problems, impairment of the immune, endocrine and nervous systems, reproductive infertility, and cancer ( 94 ).

Without any doubt, fossil fuel consumption is responsible for a sizeable part of air contamination. This contamination may be anthropogenic, as in agricultural and industrial processes or transportation, while contamination from natural sources is also possible. Interestingly, it is of note that the air quality standards established through the European Air Quality Directive are somewhat looser than the WHO guidelines, which are stricter ( 95 ).

Effect of Air Pollution on Health

The most common air pollutants are ground-level ozone and Particulates Matter (PM). Air pollution is distinguished into two main types:

Outdoor pollution is the ambient air pollution.

Indoor pollution is the pollution generated by household combustion of fuels.

People exposed to high concentrations of air pollutants experience disease symptoms and states of greater and lesser seriousness. These effects are grouped into short- and long-term effects affecting health.

Susceptible populations that need to be aware of health protection measures include old people, children, and people with diabetes and predisposing heart or lung disease, especially asthma.

As extensively stated previously, according to a recent epidemiological study from Harvard School of Public Health, the relative magnitudes of the short- and long-term effects have not been completely clarified ( 57 ) due to the different epidemiological methodologies and to the exposure errors. New models are proposed for assessing short- and long-term human exposure data more successfully ( 57 ). Thus, in the present section, we report the more common short- and long-term health effects but also general concerns for both types of effects, as these effects are often dependent on environmental conditions, dose, and individual susceptibility.

Short-term effects are temporary and range from simple discomfort, such as irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, throat, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness, and breathing difficulties, to more serious states, such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and lung and heart problems. Short-term exposure to air pollution can also cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness.

These problems can be aggravated by extended long-term exposure to the pollutants, which is harmful to the neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems and causes cancer and even, rarely, deaths.

The long-term effects are chronic, lasting for years or the whole life and can even lead to death. Furthermore, the toxicity of several air pollutants may also induce a variety of cancers in the long term ( 96 ).

As stated already, respiratory disorders are closely associated with the inhalation of air pollutants. These pollutants will invade through the airways and will accumulate at the cells. Damage to target cells should be related to the pollutant component involved and its source and dose. Health effects are also closely dependent on country, area, season, and time. An extended exposure duration to the pollutant should incline to long-term health effects in relation also to the above factors.

Particulate Matter (PMs), dust, benzene, and O 3 cause serious damage to the respiratory system ( 97 ). Moreover, there is a supplementary risk in case of existing respiratory disease such as asthma ( 98 ). Long-term effects are more frequent in people with a predisposing disease state. When the trachea is contaminated by pollutants, voice alterations may be remarked after acute exposure. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be induced following air pollution, increasing morbidity and mortality ( 99 ). Long-term effects from traffic, industrial air pollution, and combustion of fuels are the major factors for COPD risk ( 99 ).

Multiple cardiovascular effects have been observed after exposure to air pollutants ( 100 ). Changes occurred in blood cells after long-term exposure may affect cardiac functionality. Coronary arteriosclerosis was reported following long-term exposure to traffic emissions ( 101 ), while short-term exposure is related to hypertension, stroke, myocardial infracts, and heart insufficiency. Ventricle hypertrophy is reported to occur in humans after long-time exposure to nitrogen oxide (NO 2 ) ( 102 , 103 ).

Neurological effects have been observed in adults and children after extended-term exposure to air pollutants.

Psychological complications, autism, retinopathy, fetal growth, and low birth weight seem to be related to long-term air pollution ( 83 ). The etiologic agent of the neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) is not yet known, although it is believed that extended exposure to air pollution seems to be a factor. Specifically, pesticides and metals are cited as etiological factors, together with diet. The mechanisms in the development of neurodegenerative disease include oxidative stress, protein aggregation, inflammation, and mitochondrial impairment in neurons ( 104 ) ( Figure 1 ).

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Impact of air pollutants on the brain.

Brain inflammation was observed in dogs living in a highly polluted area in Mexico for a long period ( 105 ). In human adults, markers of systemic inflammation (IL-6 and fibrinogen) were found to be increased as an immediate response to PNC on the IL-6 level, possibly leading to the production of acute-phase proteins ( 106 ). The progression of atherosclerosis and oxidative stress seem to be the mechanisms involved in the neurological disturbances caused by long-term air pollution. Inflammation comes secondary to the oxidative stress and seems to be involved in the impairment of developmental maturation, affecting multiple organs ( 105 , 107 ). Similarly, other factors seem to be involved in the developmental maturation, which define the vulnerability to long-term air pollution. These include birthweight, maternal smoking, genetic background and socioeconomic environment, as well as education level.

However, diet, starting from breast-feeding, is another determinant factor. Diet is the main source of antioxidants, which play a key role in our protection against air pollutants ( 108 ). Antioxidants are free radical scavengers and limit the interaction of free radicals in the brain ( 108 ). Similarly, genetic background may result in a differential susceptibility toward the oxidative stress pathway ( 60 ). For example, antioxidant supplementation with vitamins C and E appears to modulate the effect of ozone in asthmatic children homozygous for the GSTM1 null allele ( 61 ). Inflammatory cytokines released in the periphery (e.g., respiratory epithelia) upregulate the innate immune Toll-like receptor 2. Such activation and the subsequent events leading to neurodegeneration have recently been observed in lung lavage in mice exposed to ambient Los Angeles (CA, USA) particulate matter ( 61 ). In children, neurodevelopmental morbidities were observed after lead exposure. These children developed aggressive and delinquent behavior, reduced intelligence, learning difficulties, and hyperactivity ( 109 ). No level of lead exposure seems to be “safe,” and the scientific community has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the current screening guideline of 10 μg/dl ( 109 ).

It is important to state that impact on the immune system, causing dysfunction and neuroinflammation ( 104 ), is related to poor air quality. Yet, increases in serum levels of immunoglobulins (IgA, IgM) and the complement component C3 are observed ( 106 ). Another issue is that antigen presentation is affected by air pollutants, as there is an upregulation of costimulatory molecules such as CD80 and CD86 on macrophages ( 110 ).

As is known, skin is our shield against ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and other pollutants, as it is the most exterior layer of our body. Traffic-related pollutants, such as PAHs, VOCs, oxides, and PM, may cause pigmented spots on our skin ( 111 ). On the one hand, as already stated, when pollutants penetrate through the skin or are inhaled, damage to the organs is observed, as some of these pollutants are mutagenic and carcinogenic, and, specifically, they affect the liver and lung. On the other hand, air pollutants (and those in the troposphere) reduce the adverse effects of ultraviolet radiation UVR in polluted urban areas ( 111 ). Air pollutants absorbed by the human skin may contribute to skin aging, psoriasis, acne, urticaria, eczema, and atopic dermatitis ( 111 ), usually caused by exposure to oxides and photochemical smoke ( 111 ). Exposure to PM and cigarette smoking act as skin-aging agents, causing spots, dyschromia, and wrinkles. Lastly, pollutants have been associated with skin cancer ( 111 ).

Higher morbidity is reported to fetuses and children when exposed to the above dangers. Impairment in fetal growth, low birth weight, and autism have been reported ( 112 ).

Another exterior organ that may be affected is the eye. Contamination usually comes from suspended pollutants and may result in asymptomatic eye outcomes, irritation ( 112 ), retinopathy, or dry eye syndrome ( 113 , 114 ).

Environmental Impact of Air Pollution

Air pollution is harming not only human health but also the environment ( 115 ) in which we live. The most important environmental effects are as follows.

Acid rain is wet (rain, fog, snow) or dry (particulates and gas) precipitation containing toxic amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids. They are able to acidify the water and soil environments, damage trees and plantations, and even damage buildings and outdoor sculptures, constructions, and statues.

Haze is produced when fine particles are dispersed in the air and reduce the transparency of the atmosphere. It is caused by gas emissions in the air coming from industrial facilities, power plants, automobiles, and trucks.

Ozone , as discussed previously, occurs both at ground level and in the upper level (stratosphere) of the Earth's atmosphere. Stratospheric ozone is protecting us from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. In contrast, ground-level ozone is harmful to human health and is a pollutant. Unfortunately, stratospheric ozone is gradually damaged by ozone-depleting substances (i.e., chemicals, pesticides, and aerosols). If this protecting stratospheric ozone layer is thinned, then UV radiation can reach our Earth, with harmful effects for human life (skin cancer) ( 116 ) and crops ( 117 ). In plants, ozone penetrates through the stomata, inducing them to close, which blocks CO 2 transfer and induces a reduction in photosynthesis ( 118 ).

Global climate change is an important issue that concerns mankind. As is known, the “greenhouse effect” keeps the Earth's temperature stable. Unhappily, anthropogenic activities have destroyed this protecting temperature effect by producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, and global warming is mounting, with harmful effects on human health, animals, forests, wildlife, agriculture, and the water environment. A report states that global warming is adding to the health risks of poor people ( 119 ).

People living in poorly constructed buildings in warm-climate countries are at high risk for heat-related health problems as temperatures mount ( 119 ).

Wildlife is burdened by toxic pollutants coming from the air, soil, or the water ecosystem and, in this way, animals can develop health problems when exposed to high levels of pollutants. Reproductive failure and birth effects have been reported.

Eutrophication is occurring when elevated concentrations of nutrients (especially nitrogen) stimulate the blooming of aquatic algae, which can cause a disequilibration in the diversity of fish and their deaths.

Without a doubt, there is a critical concentration of pollution that an ecosystem can tolerate without being destroyed, which is associated with the ecosystem's capacity to neutralize acidity. The Canada Acid Rain Program established this load at 20 kg/ha/yr ( 120 ).

Hence, air pollution has deleterious effects on both soil and water ( 121 ). Concerning PM as an air pollutant, its impact on crop yield and food productivity has been reported. Its impact on watery bodies is associated with the survival of living organisms and fishes and their productivity potential ( 121 ).

An impairment in photosynthetic rhythm and metabolism is observed in plants exposed to the effects of ozone ( 121 ).

Sulfur and nitrogen oxides are involved in the formation of acid rain and are harmful to plants and marine organisms.

Last but not least, as mentioned above, the toxicity associated with lead and other metals is the main threat to our ecosystems (air, water, and soil) and living creatures ( 121 ).

In 2018, during the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, the WHO's General Director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called air pollution a “silent public health emergency” and “the new tobacco” ( 122 ).

Undoubtedly, children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, especially during their development. Air pollution has adverse effects on our lives in many different respects.

Diseases associated with air pollution have not only an important economic impact but also a societal impact due to absences from productive work and school.

Despite the difficulty of eradicating the problem of anthropogenic environmental pollution, a successful solution could be envisaged as a tight collaboration of authorities, bodies, and doctors to regularize the situation. Governments should spread sufficient information and educate people and should involve professionals in these issues so as to control the emergence of the problem successfully.

Technologies to reduce air pollution at the source must be established and should be used in all industries and power plants. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 set as a major target the reduction of GHG emissions to below 5% by 2012 ( 123 ). This was followed by the Copenhagen summit, 2009 ( 124 ), and then the Durban summit of 2011 ( 125 ), where it was decided to keep to the same line of action. The Kyoto protocol and the subsequent ones were ratified by many countries. Among the pioneers who adopted this important protocol for the world's environmental and climate “health” was China ( 3 ). As is known, China is a fast-developing economy and its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is expected to be very high by 2050, which is defined as the year of dissolution of the protocol for the decrease in gas emissions.

A more recent international agreement of crucial importance for climate change is the Paris Agreement of 2015, issued by the UNFCCC (United Nations Climate Change Committee). This latest agreement was ratified by a plethora of UN (United Nations) countries as well as the countries of the European Union ( 126 ). In this vein, parties should promote actions and measures to enhance numerous aspects around the subject. Boosting education, training, public awareness, and public participation are some of the relevant actions for maximizing the opportunities to achieve the targets and goals on the crucial matter of climate change and environmental pollution ( 126 ). Without any doubt, technological improvements makes our world easier and it seems difficult to reduce the harmful impact caused by gas emissions, we could limit its use by seeking reliable approaches.

Synopsizing, a global prevention policy should be designed in order to combat anthropogenic air pollution as a complement to the correct handling of the adverse health effects associated with air pollution. Sustainable development practices should be applied, together with information coming from research in order to handle the problem effectively.

At this point, international cooperation in terms of research, development, administration policy, monitoring, and politics is vital for effective pollution control. Legislation concerning air pollution must be aligned and updated, and policy makers should propose the design of a powerful tool of environmental and health protection. As a result, the main proposal of this essay is that we should focus on fostering local structures to promote experience and practice and extrapolate these to the international level through developing effective policies for sustainable management of ecosystems.

Author Contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest

IM is employed by the company Delphis S.A. The remaining authors declare that the present review paper was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Air pollution, explained

Pollutants in the air aren't always visible and come from many different sources.

Despite decades of progress, the air quality in the United States has started to decline over the past few years, according to data provided in summer 2019 by the Environmental Protection Agency . The agency recorded 15 percent more days with unhealthy air in the country in 2018 and 2017 compared to the average from 2013 to 2016.

The reasons for the recent decline in air quality remain unclear, says the agency, but may be related to high numbers of wildfires , a warming climate, and increasing human consumption patterns driven by population growth and a strong economy. The long-term outlook also remains unclear, even as politicians debate air pollution standards.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is a mix of particles and gases that can reach harmful concentrations both outside and indoors. Its effects can range from higher disease risks to rising temperatures. Soot, smoke, mold, pollen, methane, and carbon dioxide are a just few examples of common pollutants.

In the U.S., one measure of outdoor air pollution is the Air Quality Index, or AQI which rates air conditions across the country based on concentrations of five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (or particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Some of those also contribute to indoor air pollution , along with radon, cigarette smoke, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, asbestos, and other substances.

A global health hazard

Poor air quality kills people. Worldwide, bad outdoor air caused an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016 , about 90 percent of them in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. Indoor smoke is an ongoing health threat to the 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes by burning biomass, kerosene, and coal. Air pollution has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases such as asthma. In   the U.S. nearly 134 million people—over 40 percent of the population—are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, according to American Lung Association estimates .

a melting iceberg

While those effects emerge from long-term exposure, air pollution can also cause short-term problems such as sneezing and coughing, eye irritation, headaches, and dizziness. Particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (classified as PM 10 and the even smaller PM 2.5 ) pose higher health risks because they can be breathed deeply into the lungs and may cross into the bloodstream.


Air pollutants cause less-direct health effects when they contribute to climate change . Heat waves, extreme weather, food supply disruptions, and other effects related to increased greenhouse gases can have negative impacts on human health. The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment released in 2018 noted, for example, that a changing climate "could expose more people in North America to ticks that carry Lyme disease and mosquitoes that transmit viruses such as West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, and Zika."

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Environmental impacts.

Though many living things emit carbon dioxide when they breathe, the gas is widely considered to be a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants, and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas. That's because carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Humans have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past 150 years to raise its levels higher than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years .

Other greenhouse gases include methane —which comes from such sources as landfills, the natural gas industry, and gas emitted by livestock —and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in refrigerants and aerosol propellants until they were banned in the late 1980s because of their deteriorating effect on Earth's ozone layer.


Another pollutant associated with climate change is sulfur dioxide, a component of smog. Sulfur dioxide and closely related chemicals are known primarily as a cause of acid rain . But they also reflect light when released in the atmosphere, which keeps sunlight out and creates a cooling effect. Volcanic eruptions can spew massive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, sometimes causing cooling that lasts for years. In fact, volcanoes used to be the main source of atmospheric sulfur dioxide; today, people are.

Airborne particles, depending on their chemical makeup, can also have direct effects separate from climate change. They can change or deplete nutrients in soil and waterways, harm forests and crops, and damage cultural icons such as monuments and statues.

What can be done?

Countries around the world are tackling various forms of air pollution. China, for example, is making strides in cleaning up smog-choked skies from years of rapid industrial expansion, partly by closing or canceling coal-fired power plants. In the U.S., California has been a leader in setting emissions standards aimed at improving air quality, especially in places like famously hazy Los Angeles. And a variety of efforts aim to bring cleaner cooking options to places where hazardous cookstoves are prevalent.

In any home, people can safeguard against indoor air pollution by increasing ventilation, testing for radon gas, using air purifiers, running kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, and avoiding smoking. When working on home projects, look for paint and other products low in volatile organic compounds: organizations such as Green Seal , UL (GREENGUARD) , and the U.S. Green Building Council can help.

To curb global warming, a variety of measures need to be taken , such as adding more renewable energy and replacing gasoline-fueled cars with zero-emissions vehicles such as electric ones. On a larger scale, governments at all levels are making commitments to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Paris Agreement , ratified on November 4, 2016, is one effort to combat climate change on a global scale. And the Kigali Amendment seeks to further the progress made by the Montreal Protocol , banning heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in addition to CFCs.

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Editorial article, editorial: air pollution and climate change: interactions and co-mitigation.


  • 1 Advanced Power and Energy Program, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA, United States
  • 2 Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, United States
  • 3 Environment Research Institute, Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong, China
  • 4 Key Laboratory of Coastal Environment and Resources of Zhejiang Province, School of Engineering, Westlake University, Hangzhou, China

Editorial on the Research Topic Air pollution and climate change: Interactions and co-mitigation


Air pollution and climate change are two important environmental factors that are tightly interconnected. Climate change can impact the physical, chemical, and biological processes associated with air pollution. On the other hand, emissions of air pollutants can also affect climate through their direct and indirect radiative forcing. However, significant uncertainties exist regarding their interactions, and additional insights are needed to better understand the mechanisms and outcomes associated with both. Moreover, greenhouse gases (GHGs) are often co-emitted with air pollutants; thus, synergistic or combined mitigation efforts could be designed to achieve optimized co-benefits. However, the current literature lacks an understanding of these co-benefits.

In this Research Topic, we aim to present a collection of original articles and reviews that address the interconnections between these two environmental factors. We also included original research that improves our understanding of air pollutant formation and removal, air pollution space-time patterns, and source attribution. This Research Topic collected a total of 17 papers, which can be largely divided into the following Four areas.

1) Feedback between climate change and air pollution, a total of four papers, including interactions between meteorology, emissions, pollutant formation, and emissions mitigation.

2) Interactions between air quality and other confronting factors, a total of five papers, including urbanization, emissions control, biogenic emissions, celestial phenomenon, and regional transport.

3) Air pollution characteristics and source attribution, a total of six papers, including space-time patterns, chemical composition, optical characteristics, and source classification.

4) Mechanisms behind pollutant formation and removal, a total of two papers, including new particle formation mechanisms and a new air purification technique.

Feedback between climate change and air pollution

Im et al. provided a detailed literature review on the interactions between climate change and air pollution in Europe. They concluded that ozone concentrations in Europe would likely increase by up to 9 ppb [−4 + 9.3], in the second half of the century, much higher than the first century (±1.5 ppb). The feedback between climate change and surface ozone are mainly dominated by increased temperatures and biogenic volatile organic emissions (VOC), while the feedback from surface particular matter is lesser and more uncertain. Similar to ozone, larger changes in particular matter concentrations are projected in the second half of the century. Zhu et al . provided an estimation of reactive ammonia uptake by secondary organic aerosol (SOA) under changing climate, and they found that including the NH3-SOA feedback could affect the meteorological conditions.

Moreover, the changing climate could also affect air quality predictions. Hu et al. provided a novel methodology for studying the impacts of climate change on meteorology and air stagnation through dynamic downscaling methods. By using dynamic downscaling, they can make realistic predictions of future climate in China with high resolution. They concluded that the occurrence of wintertime air stagnation would reduce slightly by the mid-century over China, with the largest reduction projected under the business-as-usual scenario. However, they also found that long-lasting air stagnation events are projected to increase in the future. These changes also show distinct spatial variations. Wang et al. provided us with novel findings about the previously neglected methane emissions from older fishing vessels in China. They adopted a real-world measurement technique and discussed the emission factors from these vessels. Their study calls for urgency on methane emission inventory in shipping.

Interactions between air quality and other confronting factors

Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ) and ground-level ozone (O 3 ) are two of the most important ambient air pollutants. Their concentrations are known to be impacted by many factors, particularly emissions of precursor gases such as NO x (nitrogen oxides) and VOC, meteorology, and associated physical and chemical processes. An in-depth understanding of the different factors contributing to pollution is the key to design effective mitigation strategies.

In this article collection, Zhang et al. applied the MEGAN (model of emissions of gases and aerosols from nature) model and estimated BVOC (biogenic volatile organic compounds) emissions over the Sichuan Basin, China. The significant impacts of BVOC emissions on regional O 3 pollution were subsequently quantified through CMAQ simulations. Liang et al. analyzed the trend of O 3 pollution in Jinan China, between 2013 and 2020 and investigated the impact of synoptic weather patterns on O 3 pollution. Features such as low sea level pressure, high temperature, and strong UV radiation were found to be the most prevalent synoptic patterns that likely favor O 3 formation. He et al. applied the WRF-CMAQ model and analyzed the evolution of PM 2.5 pollution during stable synoptic conditions in Shanghai, China. The development of PM 2.5 pollution was divided into four stages. The contributions from factors such as meteorology, emissions, and regional transport were found to vary significantly among stages.

Wang et al. simulated how land use and land cover change as the results of urbanization affect the dynamics of urban air quality. In this study, urban expansion was found to significantly impact meteorology near the surface, which consequently altered physical and chemical processes associated with PM 2.5 and O 3 pollution. Interestingly, urbanization was found to generally decrease PM 2.5 pollution due to enhanced vertical mixing and weakened aerosol production, but increase O 3 pollution around 8 p.m. as the result of reduction in horizontal advection. Finally, Tian et al. examined the impact of solar eclipse event on O 3 pollution in Yunnan, China. Substantially decreased O 3 pollution (up to 40%) were observed during the solar eclipse, likely due to drastically reduced solar radiation, and different meteorological conditions during the event. O 3 in severely polluted cities was also found to be more sensitive to nitrogen dioxide (NO 2 ) and carbon monoxide (CO) during the eclipse.

These articles provided valuable insights into the different factors impacting ambient PM 2.5 and O 3 pollution. The diversity of topics also highlights the complexity of this problem.

Air pollution characteristics and source attribution

Air pollutant species could have distinct space-time patterns and chemical compositions due to their emission sources, driving meteorology, and surrounding topography. Understanding those characteristics is crucial in advancing our knowledge of pollution formation and source attribution, which in term helps the design of pollution control and mitigation policies. Based on a state-of-the-art chemical transport model (WRF-CMAQ), Mao et al. simulated the long-term PM 2.5 and O 3 distribution in China at a 36 × 36 km scale between 2013 and 2019. In general, they found an increasing trend of O 3 and decreasing trend of PM 2.5 , and a negative correlation is found between O 3 and PM 2.5 for most regions except for the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta. Another modeling work conducted by Yan et al. , applied the advanced Source Apportionment Method (ISAM) to investigate the evolution mechanism and conduct source attribution of an extreme O 3 episode in the Sichuan Basin, southwestern China. The inadequate ventilation, in combination with stagnant conditions, is found to be the trigger of the episode, and the emissions from industrial and transportation sectors have the largest impacts on elevated O 3 concentrations. However, natural sources could also be a major player in pollution formation. As pointed out in the study of Liu et al. , soil dust and fugitive dust are the top two sources of coarse particulate matter (PM 10 ) pollution in the Arid Region of Northwest China based on field measurement and backward trajectories calculated using the HYSPLIT model. Similar work is conducted by Zeb et al. for the Semiarid region in Pakistan. The average PM 10 concentration in industrial locations (505.1 μg m −3 ) is about twice that in urban and suburban locations. Their results showed that the pollution originated from local sources like cement industries, brick kiln industries, and others. Acuña Askar et al. Explored the detailed chemical composition and optical properties of PM 2.5 and water-soluble organic carbon (WSOC) of these particles in Northeastern Mexico. Where a close connection is found between WSOC compounds and brown carbon chromophores, and the terrestrial and microbial origin of WSOC. Finally, Lee et al. investigated the temporal variability of five air pollutants in megacities of South Korea between 2002 and 2020 based on monitoring data. Similar to the observation by Mao et al. for China, they also found O 3 to be the only pollutant with increasing trends in South Korea. The interconnections between human activities and seasonal and weekly patterns of major pollutants are also investigated, which provides valuable insights for air quality control.

Mechanisms behind pollutant formation and removal

Understanding chemical mechanisms behind pollutant formation and removal is not only important scientific knowledge but also provides critical insights into control and mitigation. Quantum chemistry calculations provide a useful tool to probe these mechanisms from the first principle. Liu et al. investigated new particle formation from the methanesulfonic acid–methylamine–ammonia system under acid-rich conditions using quantum chemistry calculations. Their calculations revealed stable cluster structures formed in this system. They found that methylamine and ammonia have a synergistic effect on new particle formation, and the role of ammonia increases with cluster sizes. Also using quantum chemistry calculations, Yang et al. , applied the technique to study air pollutant adsorption on Pt-decorated N3-carbon-nanotubes, as a potential pollutant control technology. Their calculation showed that a suite of air pollutants could be removed by the adsorbent with adsorption energies ranging from -0.81∼-4.28 eV, driven by the overlaps between the Pt 5d orbitals and the outmost p orbitals of the coordination atoms (C, N, O, and S atoms) in the gas molecules. These findings from quantum chemistry calculations provide microscopic insights into the pollution formation and removal processes that are valuable for developing policy and technology.

The 17 papers in this Research Topic use field observations, laboratory measurements, and numerical models and provide in-depth and detailed discussions on air pollution characteristics and source attribution, mechanisms between formation and removal, interactions with climate and other confronting factors, and obtained very interesting and meaningful results. We thank the authors and reviewers who contributed to this Research Topic. Together these papers provide valuable insight into the discussion of air pollution and climate interactions, and open up exciting avenues for future research.

Author contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Keywords: air pollution, climate change, co-mitigation, PM2.5, ozone, GHG (green house gas) emission

Citation: Zhu S, Yu H, Zhang Y, Zhang Y and Kinnon MM (2022) Editorial: Air pollution and climate change: Interactions and co-mitigation. Front. Environ. Sci. 10:1105656. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2022.1105656

Received: 22 November 2022; Accepted: 29 November 2022; Published: 12 December 2022.

Edited and reviewed by:

Copyright © 2022 Zhu, Yu, Zhang, Zhang and Kinnon. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Shupeng Zhu, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Air Pollution and Climate Change: Interactions and Co-mitigation

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Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health.

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What is air pollution?

What causes air pollution, effects of air pollution, air pollution in the united states, air pollution and environmental justice, controlling air pollution, how to help reduce air pollution, how to protect your health.

Air pollution  refers to the release of pollutants into the air—pollutants that are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. According to the  World Health Organization (WHO) , each year, indoor and outdoor air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe. Ninety-nine percent of human beings currently breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, with those living in low- and middle-income countries suffering the most. In the United States, the  Clean Air Act , established in 1970, authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safeguard public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.

“Most air pollution comes from energy use and production,” says  John Walke , director of the Clean Air team at NRDC. Driving a car on gasoline, heating a home with oil, running a power plant on  fracked gas : In each case, a fossil fuel is burned and harmful chemicals and gases are released into the air.

“We’ve made progress over the last 50 years in improving air quality in the United States, thanks to the Clean Air Act. But climate change will make it harder in the future to meet pollution standards, which are designed to  protect health ,” says Walke.

Air pollution is now the world’s fourth-largest risk factor for early death. According to the 2020  State of Global Air  report —which summarizes the latest scientific understanding of air pollution around the world—4.5 million deaths were linked to outdoor air pollution exposures in 2019, and another 2.2 million deaths were caused by indoor air pollution. The world’s most populous countries, China and India, continue to bear the highest burdens of disease.

“Despite improvements in reducing global average mortality rates from air pollution, this report also serves as a sobering reminder that the climate crisis threatens to worsen air pollution problems significantly,” explains  Vijay Limaye , senior scientist in NRDC’s Science Office. Smog, for instance, is intensified by increased heat, forming when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation. In addition, climate change increases the production of allergenic air pollutants, including mold (thanks to damp conditions caused by extreme weather and increased flooding) and pollen (due to a longer pollen season). “Climate change–fueled droughts and dry conditions are also setting the stage for dangerous wildfires,” adds Limaye. “ Wildfire smoke can linger for days and pollute the air with particulate matter hundreds of miles downwind.”

The effects of air pollution on the human body vary, depending on the type of pollutant, the length and level of exposure, and other factors, including a person’s individual health risks and the cumulative impacts of multiple pollutants or stressors.

Smog and soot

These are the two most prevalent types of air pollution. Smog (sometimes referred to as ground-level ozone) occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot—a type of  particulate matter —is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens that are carried in the air. The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines, generally anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline, or natural gas,” Walke says.

Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs, especially those of children, senior citizens, and people who work or exercise outdoors. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies; these extra pollutants can intensify their symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. The tiniest airborne particles in soot are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death. In  2020, a report from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that COVID-19 mortality rates were higher in areas with more particulate matter pollution than in areas with even slightly less, showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to air pollution. 

These findings also illuminate an important  environmental justice issue . Because highways and polluting facilities have historically been sited in or next to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the negative effects of this pollution have been  disproportionately experienced by the people who live in these communities.

Hazardous air pollutants

A number of air pollutants pose severe health risks and can sometimes be fatal, even in small amounts. Almost 200 of them are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury,  lead , dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incineration, or—in the case of benzene—found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, is another carcinogen that can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions.  Mercury  attacks the central nervous system. In large amounts, lead can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even minimal exposure can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn.

Another category of toxic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are by-products of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer.  In one study , the children of mothers exposed to PAHs during pregnancy showed slower brain-processing speeds and more pronounced symptoms of ADHD.

Greenhouse gases

While these climate pollutants don’t have the direct or immediate impacts on the human body associated with other air pollutants, like smog or hazardous chemicals, they are still harmful to our health. By trapping the earth’s heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures, which in turn lead to the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and the increased transmission of infectious diseases. In 2021, carbon dioxide accounted for roughly 79 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and methane made up more than 11 percent. “Carbon dioxide comes from combusting fossil fuels, and methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling,” Walke says. “We emit far larger amounts of carbon dioxide, but methane is significantly more potent, so it’s also very destructive.” 

Another class of greenhouse gases,  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) , are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat. In October 2016, more than 140 countries signed the Kigali Agreement to reduce the use of these chemicals—which are found in air conditioners and refrigerators—and develop greener alternatives over time. (The United States officially signed onto the  Kigali Agreement in 2022.)

Pollen and mold

Mold and allergens from trees, weeds, and grass are also carried in the air, are exacerbated by climate change, and can be hazardous to health. Though they aren’t regulated, they can be considered a form of air pollution. “When homes, schools, or businesses get water damage, mold can grow and produce allergenic airborne pollutants,” says Kim Knowlton, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and a former NRDC scientist. “ Mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks  or an allergic response, and some molds can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale.”

Pollen allergies are worsening  because of climate change . “Lab and field studies are showing that pollen-producing plants—especially ragweed—grow larger and produce more pollen when you increase the amount of carbon dioxide that they grow in,” Knowlton says. “Climate change also extends the pollen production season, and some studies are beginning to suggest that ragweed pollen itself might be becoming a more potent allergen.” If so, more people will suffer runny noses, fevers, itchy eyes, and other symptoms. “And for people with allergies and asthma, pollen peaks can precipitate asthma attacks, which are far more serious and can be life-threatening.”

air pollution and climate change essay

More than one in three U.S. residents—120 million people—live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the  2023  State of the Air  report by the American Lung Association (ALA). Since the annual report was first published, in 2000, its findings have shown how the Clean Air Act has been able to reduce harmful emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing.

Recent findings, however, reflect how climate change–fueled wildfires and extreme heat are adding to the challenges of protecting public health. The latest report—which focuses on ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution—also finds that people of color are 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade in at least one of those categories, and three times more likely to live in a county that fails in all three.

In rankings for each of the three pollution categories covered by the ALA report, California cities occupy the top three slots (i.e., were highest in pollution), despite progress that the Golden State has made in reducing air pollution emissions in the past half century. At the other end of the spectrum, these cities consistently rank among the country’s best for air quality: Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu; and Wilmington, North Carolina. 

No one wants to live next door to an incinerator, oil refinery, port, toxic waste dump, or other polluting site. Yet millions of people around the world do, and this puts them at a much higher risk for respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological damage, cancer, and death. In the United States, people of color are 1.5 times more likely than whites to live in areas with poor air quality, according to the ALA.

Historically, racist zoning policies and discriminatory lending practices known as  redlining  have combined to keep polluting industries and car-choked highways away from white neighborhoods and have turned communities of color—especially low-income and working-class communities of color—into sacrifice zones, where residents are forced to breathe dirty air and suffer the many health problems associated with it. In addition to the increased health risks that come from living in such places, the polluted air can economically harm residents in the form of missed workdays and higher medical costs.

Environmental racism isn't limited to cities and industrial areas. Outdoor laborers, including the estimated three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, are among the most vulnerable to air pollution—and they’re also among the least equipped, politically, to pressure employers and lawmakers to affirm their right to breathe clean air.

Recently,  cumulative impact mapping , which uses data on environmental conditions and demographics, has been able to show how some communities are overburdened with layers of issues, like high levels of poverty, unemployment, and pollution. Tools like the  Environmental Justice Screening Method  and the EPA’s  EJScreen  provide evidence of what many environmental justice communities have been explaining for decades: that we need land use and public health reforms to ensure that vulnerable areas are not overburdened and that the people who need resources the most are receiving them.

In the United States, the  Clean Air Act  has been a crucial tool for reducing air pollution since its passage in 1970, although fossil fuel interests aided by industry-friendly lawmakers have frequently attempted to  weaken its many protections. Ensuring that this bedrock environmental law remains intact and properly enforced will always be key to maintaining and improving our air quality.

But the best, most effective way to control air pollution is to speed up our transition to cleaner fuels and industrial processes. By switching over to renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar power), maximizing fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and replacing more and more of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric versions, we'll be limiting air pollution at its source while also curbing the global warming that heightens so many of its worst health impacts.

And what about the economic costs of controlling air pollution? According to a report on the Clean Air Act commissioned by NRDC, the annual  benefits of cleaner air  are up to 32 times greater than the cost of clean air regulations. Those benefits include up to 370,000 avoided premature deaths, 189,000 fewer hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, and net economic benefits of up to $3.8 trillion for the U.S. economy every year.

“The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and the harmful effects of climate change,” Walke explains. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, ride a bike, walk, or take public transportation. For driving, choose a car that gets better miles per gallon of gas or  buy an electric car .” You can also investigate your power provider options—you may be able to request that your electricity be supplied by wind or solar. Buying your food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the world. And most important: “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says.

  • “When you see in the news or hear on the weather report that pollution levels are high, it may be useful to limit the time when children go outside or you go for a jog,” Walke says. Generally, ozone levels tend to be lower in the morning.
  • If you exercise outside, stay as far as you can from heavily trafficked roads. Then shower and wash your clothes to remove fine particles.
  • The air may look clear, but that doesn’t mean it’s pollution free. Utilize tools like the EPA’s air pollution monitor,  AirNow , to get the latest conditions. If the air quality is bad, stay inside with the windows closed.
  • If you live or work in an area that’s prone to wildfires,  stay away from the harmful smoke  as much as you’re able. Consider keeping a small stock of masks to wear when conditions are poor. The most ideal masks for smoke particles will be labelled “NIOSH” (which stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and have either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.
  • If you’re using an air conditioner while outdoor pollution conditions are bad, use the recirculating setting to limit the amount of polluted air that gets inside. 

This story was originally published on November 1, 2016, and has been updated with new information and links.

This NRDC.org story is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.

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Air Pollution

Our overview of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

By Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

This article was first published in October 2017 and last revised in February 2024.

Air pollution is one of the world's largest health and environmental problems. It develops in two contexts: indoor (household) air pollution and outdoor air pollution.

In this topic page, we look at the aggregate picture of air pollution – both indoor and outdoor. We also have dedicated topic pages that look in more depth at these subjects:

Indoor Air Pollution

Look in detail at the data and research on the health impacts of Indoor Air Pollution, attributed deaths, and its causes across the world

Outdoor Air Pollution

Look in detail at the data and research on exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution, its health impacts, and attributed deaths across the world

Look in detail at the data and research on energy consumption, its impacts around the world today, and how this has changed over time

See all interactive charts on Air Pollution ↓

Other research and writing on air pollution on Our World in Data:

  • Air pollution: does it get worse before it gets better?
  • Data Review: How many people die from air pollution?
  • Energy poverty and indoor air pollution: a problem as old as humanity that we can end within our lifetime
  • How many people do not have access to clean fuels for cooking?
  • What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?
  • What the history of London’s air pollution can tell us about the future of today’s growing megacities
  • When will countries phase out coal power?

Air pollution is one of the world's leading risk factors for death

Air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths each year.

Air pollution – the combination of outdoor and indoor particulate matter and ozone – is a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), in its Global Burden of Disease study, provides estimates of the number of deaths attributed to the range of risk factors for disease. 1

In the visualization, we see the number of deaths per year attributed to each risk factor. This chart shows the global total but can be explored for any country or region using the "change country" toggle.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. In low-income countries, it is often very near the top of the list (or is the leading risk factor).

Air pollution contributes to one in ten deaths globally

In recent years, air pollution has contributed to one in ten deaths globally. 2

In the map shown here, we see the share of deaths attributed to air pollution across the world.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for disease burden

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. But its impacts go even further; it is also one of the main contributors to the global disease burden.

Global disease burden takes into account not only years of life lost to early death but also the number of years lived in poor health.

In the visualization, we see risk factors ranked in order of DALYs – disability-adjusted life years – the metric used to assess disease burden. Again, air pollution is near the top of the list, making it one of the leading risk factors for poor health across the world.

Air pollution not only takes years from people's lives but also has a large effect on the quality of life while they're still living.

Who is most affected by air pollution?

Death rates from air pollution are highest in low-to-middle-income countries.

Air pollution is a health and environmental issue across all countries of the world but with large differences in severity.

In the interactive map, we show death rates from air pollution across the world, measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 people in a given country or region.

The burden of air pollution tends to be greater across both low and middle-income countries for two reasons: indoor pollution rates tend to be high in low-income countries due to a reliance on solid fuels for cooking, and outdoor air pollution tends to increase as countries industrialize and shift from low to middle incomes.

A map of the number of deaths from air pollution by country can be found here .

How are death rates from air pollution changing?

Death rates from air pollution are falling – mainly due to improvements in indoor pollution.

In the visualization, we show global death rates from air pollution over time – shown as the total air pollution – in addition to the individual contributions from outdoor and indoor pollution.

Globally, we see that in recent decades, the death rates from total air pollution have declined: since 1990, death rates have nearly halved. But, as we see from the breakdown, this decline has been primarily driven by improvements in indoor air pollution.

Death rates from indoor air pollution have seen an impressive decline, while improvements in outdoor pollution have been much more modest.

You can explore this data for any country or region using the "change country" toggle on the interactive chart.

Interactive charts on air pollution

Murray, C. J., Aravkin, A. Y., Zheng, P., Abbafati, C., Abbas, K. M., Abbasi-Kangevari, M., ... & Borzouei, S. (2020). Global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 .  The Lancet ,  396 (10258), 1223-1249.

Here, we use the term 'contributes,' meaning it was one of the attributed risk factors for a given disease or cause of death. There can be multiple risk factors for a given disease that can amplify one another. This means that in some cases, air pollution was not the only risk factor but one of several.

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The best ways to reduce air pollution and tackle climate change together


Electrifying public transport is one way to lower both air pollution and carbon emissions Image:  REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

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air pollution and climate change essay

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Stay up to date:, air pollution.

  • Prevailing wisdom holds that measures to reduce air pollution will also tackle climate change, and vice versa - but this is not always the case.
  • A new report has identified the most effective interventions for addressing both issues at once.

When we look at air pollution and climate change, we see two dire situations:

1. People, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), are becoming ill and dying prematurely because of the poor quality of the air they breathe. Air pollution is linked to an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths a year , according to the World Health Organization. When indoor air quality is considered, that number rises by an estimated 2.9 to 4.3 million deaths a year, according to The Lancet Commission .

2. Glacial ice is melting, droughts are becoming more prolonged, extreme weather events are more common, and cities around the world are reporting record-breaking heat, all against a backdrop of predictions from the International Panel on Climate Change of temperature increases between 2.5˚C and 10˚C over the next century.

Have you read?

Air pollution in europe is decreasing but it still has some hotspots, youth can help fight air pollution in africa. here's how, here's a cost-effective way to improve air quality, indoor air pollution: what causes it and how to tackle it.

For years, the prevailing wisdom has argued that the same adverse conditions that propel climate change also are responsible for air pollution, and that by correcting one problem we can also solve the other.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Some interventions that can massively improve air quality and the health of people in affected communities, such as using lower-sulphur diesel fuel, have little or no impact on climate change. Others produce benefits for the climate but do not significantly impact health. And still other popular and often costly interventions do little to improve air quality or slow the pace of climate change.

With our partners – AirQualityAsia, The Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College, and with support from the Clean Air Fund – we set out to identify the most successful and practical actions that can improve health by reducing air pollution and impact climate change . Because very little analytical data is available about outcomes for specific interventions, our researchers and consultants went directly to those deeply involved in air pollution projects around the world to learn what had worked, what had not, and why.

The result of these efforts – a new report entitled Air Pollution Interventions: Seeking the Intersection between Climate and Health – is intended to help governments and policy-makers identify and implement the most effective interventions for their communities and particular situations.


When we talk about adverse health effects from air pollution, our report focuses primarily on particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller in size (PM2.5), which are largely produced by carbon burning. These microscopic particles, less than one-thirtieth the width of a human air, pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream where they are carried throughout the body to cause damage to respiratory, cardiovascular, and other systems, and according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation account for more than 85% of air pollution-related mortality .

With regard to climate change, the report mainly looks at activities that increase atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and black carbon.

PM2.5, black carbon and CO2 are largely the byproducts of carbon burning. The three primary sources are:

1. Energy generation from coal and natural gas

2. Public and private transportation of people and goods using diesel or gasoline

3. Open fires, mostly crop burning and forest fires, but also uncontrolled waste incineration

Coal-fired power plants are the granddaddies of air pollution and climate change – and we've known this for some time. Likewise, the single most effective action governments can take to improve air quality and to impact climate change is to phase out the use of coal and other fossil fuels, such as tar and lignite, for power generation.

If you take a big coal-fired power plant in the middle of a city and replace it with renewable energy, that's a huge step to reduce air pollution. Converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas or installing scrubbers reduces PM2.5 emissions – and so benefits health – but the carbon-burning power plants are still producing CO2 and climate-changing emissions. While moving that coal-fired power plant outside the city may be politically popular with millions of city dwellers (less so, perhaps, with people near the new plant), the action is costly and does nothing to benefit health or climate change.

Mortality rates from air pollution around the world

Best ways to reduce air pollution

Other significant interventions that improve both health by reducing PM2.5 and impact climate change by reducing CO2 emissions include:

• Replacing diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles. Shenzhen, China, for instance, has switched from diesel-powered public transportation to an electric bus fleet with an expected 48% reduction in CO2 emissions and significant reductions in particulate matter.

• Eliminating uncontrolled diesel emissions. Studies have found that reducing vehicle fleet levels from the equivalent of Euro I to Euro IV can reduce fleet emissions by about 80% and moving up to Euro V standards further reduces the remaining emissions by 80%. This is a great step to remove air pollution and CO2 levels.

• Preventing crop burning. Specific technologies and education can improve outcomes for farmers without burning – creating win-win situations. Education and support for agricultural extension programmes in developing countries are key to their success. Poland, for example, has largely phased out the practice of burning the stubble left after the wheat harvest. Government initiatives in Delhi to combat crop burning, a significant source of air pollution, include awareness and capacity building, technological interventions, and subsidies for farmers to purchase straw management machines. Still, the twice-annual traditional crop burning contributes significantly to Delhi's notorious haze.

Our team considered 22 interventions with dozens of supporting case studies with the goal of helping governments and policy-makers determine which interventions may be most practical and beneficial for their particular problems.

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

We know that exposure to PM2.5 makes people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses; preliminary studies and anecdotal reporting early in the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that infection rates initially were higher and illnesses more severe in cities with poorer air quality. We also know that increasingly the citizenry is demanding that its leaders take swift and sure action to combat air pollution, as underscored by a recent survey by the Clean Air Fund of people in the UK, Bulgaria, India, Nigeria and Poland. As The New York Times reports , the survey, which was conducted during the pandemic between 22 May 22 and 2 June, found overwhelming support for stricter air quality regulations and better enforcement of existing rules. In Nigeria and India, for instance, 90% of those surveyed said they wanted improved air quality.

The most important step for municipal and national agencies to reduce air pollution is to raise their level of ambition in achieving their air quality and climate objectives. The overall aim must be an economy where development is uncoupled from resource use and energy provision is de-carbonized. Short-term actions can then be selected and implemented within that framework.

The solutions exist – and with technical support, strategic funding, and public and private initiatives, we can successfully improve public health and combat climate change.

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World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Climate policy, environmental justice, and local air pollution

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Meredith fowlie , meredith fowlie professor - university of california, berkeley reed walker , and reed walker transamerica associate professor of business strategy - university of california, berkeley david wooley david wooley lecturer and executive director - environmental center, goldman school of public policy.

October 20, 2020

At this very moment, thousands of communities throughout the United States are being exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. The regulatory framework designed to safeguard our air quality is failing to adequately address local air pollution problems, particularly in low income communities and communities of color located near pollution sources. This is the unfinished business of the Clean Air Act (CAA). At the same time, climate change is predicted to have disproportionate impacts on low-income, marginalized communities (USGCRP, 2018).

Climate change has become a defining economic issue. It is also, fundamentally, a social justice issue. Investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation could reduce – or increase – social and environmental inequalities in the United States, depending on how climate policies are designed and implemented. A more effective and inclusive response to local air pollution hotspots in historically disadvantaged communities will be politically important for any serious federal or state climate policy initiatives.

In this paper, we look to a jurisdiction that has been working to combine stringent climate goals with unprecedented emphasis on social justice and local air quality. Starting with the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, California has positioned itself on the leading edge of policy innovation in this space. We review the California experience to date, drawing on the legislative and regulatory lessons that could inform policy efforts elsewhere. Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, tensions quickly surfaced as government agencies endeavored to address climate change and local air pollution — two fundamentally different problems — under the same regulatory framework. Disagreements about stakeholder participation, the appropriate scope of policy emphasis, and the role of market-based greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations all posed conflict.

The regulatory framework designed to safeguard our air quality is failing to adequately address local air pollution problems.

Negotiating these challenges led to important policy refinements, many of which have been codified in new legislation. Assembly Bill 617 (AB 617) was designed to directly address ongoing issues of local air pollution in disadvantaged communities, recognizing that the existing provisions under AB 32 and the Clean Air Act were insufficient. AB 617 is not a climate change policy, rather an important companion bill that was designed in direct response to frustrations with the initial climate policy framework. Although it is too early to tell whether California’s AB 617 policy experiment will succeed in delivering substantial and durable improvements in local pollution hotspots, the process so far has forced deliberation on environmental justice (EJ) issues, bringing local pollution problems into the light of public debate. It is also advancing a form of accountability politics, asking important questions about how public agencies are succeeding and where they are falling short.

Concerns about air pollution hotspots and the marginalization of disadvantaged communities in the policy process are not unique to California. These environmental justice concerns span all 50 states. In this respect, the California experience could guide policy innovation in other states and/or at the federal level. California’s policy experiment-in-progress has focused attention on gaps in pollution controls and safeguards that affect local communities and weaken the overall effectiveness of state climate and clean air plans.

California’s joint implementation of an ambitious climate change policy agenda together with a targeted effort to mitigate inequities in both pollution exposure and policy participation could serve as a model for other jurisdictions. In the context of federal policy, we believe there are several potential avenues to address systemic pollution exposure burdens in marginalized communities: amendments to the CAA; new legislation outside the CAA; EPA rulemaking; or programmatic actions supported by congressional appropriations. Although we focus primarily on the federal policy arena, much of the discussion is applicable to state legislation and agency actions on EJ. There is no reason why a new federal administration could not, one way or another, begin to address persistent inequity of air pollution exposure in low income neighborhoods and communities of color in the United States.

Read the full report and complete recommendations here .

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The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. None of the authors are currently an officer, director, or board member of any organization with an interest in this article.

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Challenges and perspectives of air pollution control in China

  • Perspectives
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  • Published: 20 April 2024
  • Volume 18 , article number  68 , ( 2024 )

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air pollution and climate change essay

  • Bin Zhao 1 , 2 ,
  • Shuxiao Wang 1 , 2 &
  • Jiming Hao 1 , 2  

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Air pollution is one of the most challenging environmental issues in the world. China has achieved remarkable success in improving air quality in last decade as a result of aggressive air pollution control policies. However, the average fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ) concentration in China is still about six times of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) and causing significant human health risks. Extreme emission reductions of multiple air pollutants are required for China to achieve the AQG. Here we identify the major challenges in future air quality improvement and propose corresponding control strategies. The main challenges include the persistently high health risk attributed to PM 2.5 pollution, the excessively loose air quality standards, and coordinated control of air pollution, greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions and emerging pollutants. To further improve air quality and protect human health, a health-oriented air pollution control strategy shall be implemented by tightening the air quality standards as well as optimizing emission reduction pathways based on the health risks of various sources. In the meantime, an “one-atmosphere” concept shall be adopted to strengthen the synergistic control of air pollutants and GHGs and the control of non-combustion sources and emerging pollutants shall be enhanced.

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This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 22188102) and the National Key R&D Program of China (No. 2022YFC3702905). We also thank the support from Tsinghua-TOYOTA Joint Research Center.

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State Key Joint Laboratory of Environmental Simulation and Pollution Control, School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 100084, China

Bin Zhao, Shuxiao Wang & Jiming Hao

State Environmental Protection Key Laboratory of Sources and Control of Air Pollution Complex, Beijing, 100084, China

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Conflict of Interests Jiming Hao is an advisory board member of Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering. The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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• Major challenges of air pollution control in China are summarized.

• A “health-oriented” air pollution control strategy is proposed.

• Directions of air quality standard amendments are discussed.

• “One-atmosphere” concept shall be adopted to synergistically address multiple issues.

Shuxiao Wang is a Full Professor at School of Environment, Tsinghua University. She received a B.S. and M.S. from School of Chemical Engineering at Tianjin University, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering at Tsinghua University. Then she completed a 2-year postdoctoral training at Harvard University before joining Tsinghua University as an Assistant Professor in 2003. In 2011 she was promoted to a Full Professor. She has been directoring the State Environmental Protection Key Laboratory of Sources and Control of Air Pollution Complex in China since 2017. Her research interests focus on sources, atmospheric chemistry, health impacts, interactions between climate and air, and control policies. She has published over 400 peer-reviewed journal papers, which have been cited for more than 32000 times with an H-index of 96 (Google Scholar). She has been Global Highly Cited Scientist since 2019. She is Associate Editor for two journals: ES&T and ES&T Letters. She also serves as Scientific Committee Member of Asia-Pacific Clean Air Partnership and the Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution.

Jiming Hao is a Professor in School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and Foreign Academician of U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He earned a B.S. from Tsinghua University in 1970, a M.S. from Tsinghua University in 1981, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati in 1984. Prof. Hao’s major research interests are energy and the environment, air pollution control, greenhouse gas reduction and circular economy. He led the designation of China’s acid rain control measures, developed the methodology of urban vehicle pollution control planning, and pushed the process of China’s vehicle pollution control. He also developed theories and technical strategies for improving air quality in megacities and promoted the joint regional air pollution control in China. Prof. Hao is the Dean of the Research Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering, Tsinghua University and the Director of Beijing Laboratory of Environmental Frontier Technologies. He serves as the Member of the International Council on Clean Transportation, Member of the National Ecological Environment Protection Expert Committee. He also holds the additional role of Chair of the Science Advisory Committee on Air Pollution Control in the Asia-Pacific region for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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Zhao, B., Wang, S. & Hao, J. Challenges and perspectives of air pollution control in China. Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. 18 , 68 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11783-024-1828-z

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s11783-024-1828-z

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