Air pollution: the latest findings from scientific research

The latest research, presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, on the topic of air pollution.

The striking effects of air pollution on health

The latest evidence showing the overall impact of air pollution on health was shared at the ERS International Congress.

A talk was delivered by the European Respiratory Society’s Chair of the Environment and Health Committee, Zorana Andersen. It covered the effects of air pollution on different parts of the body and who is most vulnerable to these effects.

Air pollution and the lungs

Long-term exposure (over years or a lifetime) to air pollution can lead to problems with how the lungs work, the development of new lung conditions in otherwise healthy individuals, such as lung cancer or COPD, and increased risk of dying from those diseases.

Short-term exposure (hours, days) to air pollution can worsen existing lung conditions and trigger symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and even increase the risk of death.

In addition to these effects on our lungs, particles from air pollution can also reach our bloodstream, contributing to an increased risk of heart disease.

Air pollution and cancer

Cancer causes 1 in 4 deaths in the EU.

Air pollution has been found as a cause of lung cancer. New evidence has also begun to suggest that air pollution can possibly cause other types of cancer such as breast, liver and blood.

The European Union (EU) Green Deal, which aims to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, is now a key tool to limit people’s exposure to air pollution and prevent cancer.

Air pollution and the brain

Studies show that air pollution affects the way our brain functions.

This is particularly worrying in children whose brains are in the early stages of development. Air pollution can reduce this development, leading to the onset of learning difficulties or autism.

Air pollution has also been linked to a faster decline in the brain function of the elderly, alongside an increased risk of dementia.

Newest evidence also links air pollution to a decline in our mental health and wellbeing, leading to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Who is most vulnerable?
  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • Elderly
  • Chronic diseases patients
  • Poorer communities
Overall conclusions 
  1. Air pollution is dangerous at lower levels than we previously thought- there is no threshold under which it is safe.
  2. Everyone is exposed to air pollution (97.5% of European population) and this will only increase if we do not act.
  3. Air pollution is directly linked to climate change – the two cannot be separated.

Study estimates cases of disease linked to air pollution in one area

A new study looked at the number of reported diseases in the area of Po Valley, Italy and assessed whether these were linked to air pollution.

The study took data from the Estimation of Morbidity from Air Pollution and its Economic Costs (EMAPEC) project, coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The research concluded that:

  • Pollution is a relevant risk factor for death and disease in Italy.
  • The main emissions in Po Valley are traffic, the burning of fossil fuels and intensive livestock farming.
  • Po Valley has the most significant burden of air pollution linked to death and disease in Italy.

Improving exposure to air pollution in urban areas

The latest evidence looking at exposure to air pollution in urban areas was presented.

Why are children particularly vulnerable to air pollution?
  • They spend lots of time outside.
  • They have higher rates of breathing due to their body size.
  • They have narrower airways.
  • The systems in their bodies to clear out and filter pollution particles have not fully developed.
  • As children, they do not choose their lifestyle and environment.
How does exposure affect children?
  • If a child is affected during pregnancy, this can lead to problems with their growth or an early birth.
  • Exposure as young children can cause asthma or problems with lung growth, both raising the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).
  • Children may suffer from repeat infections in the airways with symptoms such as coughing and phlegm.
  • Exposure to air pollution can even cause death.
What are the main benefits of reduced exposure in urban areas?
  • Children and young people’s lungs grow and develop much better – there is evidence showing this from studies conducted in Stockholm, Sweden and in California, USA.
  • There is a much lower number of diagnosed asthma cases.