Rising Urban Air Pollution Has Disastrous Impacts on Lung Health

Yesterday, 12 May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report detailing the rising levels of air pollution in urban areas around the world and the disastrous consequences this has on human health. In particular, the report found that 98% of cities in low- and middle- income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. Sadly, these are the countries that also have the highest burden of TB.

Ambient air pollution--made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter--causes more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide every year. In China alone, air pollution causes nearly one in five deaths—over 4,000 preventable human deaths per day, totaling nearly 1.5 million per annum.[1] Ambient air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health.

Low- and middle-income countries seeking to develop their economies frequently invest in the cheapest—and therefore the dirtiest—forms of energy.  As such, global urban air pollution levels increased by 8% over the period from 2008-2013, according to the latest data available from WHO. This issue has been and will continue to of high interest to The Union, as it directly impacts our work reducing the burden of TB and lung disease in low- and middle-income countries. 

In an effort to address high concentrations of these ambient air particles, last November, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement: the first global commitment to reduce the level of carbon in our atmosphere. Although this is a remarkable step forward, we must build upon this foundation to ensure that every country has the resources to mitigate air pollution and climate change and, thereby, reduce the toll on human health.

Several recent studies have demonstrated the impact that outdoor air pollution—including soot and smog from coal and natural gas power plants—have on TB and other lung diseases. In one study, researchers found that carbon monoxide (CO) triggers mycobacterium tuberculosis to shift from an active infection to drug-resistant latency, meaning that the infection is harder to detect.[2] Another study by the U.S. National Institute for Health found that residents of Seoul, South Korea had an increased risk of developing TB when exposed to sulfur dioxides (SO2).[3]

The growing body of research linking pollution to adverse lung health impacts has important implications for the way that The Union approaches lung health, especially in developing countries. More research is needed to understand the exact interactions between air pollution and TB.

Although we’ve known about the association between urban air pollution and lung health for decades, the information in yesterday’s report requires our urgent attention. Together with our colleagues who work in climate change policy, we can reduce urban air pollution and, therefore, reduce the number of premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries. To learn more about the interplay between lung health and air pollution, read WHO’s statement here.