Healthy Body

Air Pollution Kills 13 People Every Minute, According to the World Health Organization

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Cavan Images
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we think about clean air. Researchers at Harvard University found that people who live in polluted areas are 15 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who do not. Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for governments to follow 10 climate and health recommendations to ensure the world recovers from the impacts of  COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals, and our environment,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, WHO Director-General, in a press release. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people. The WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at [the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference] to limit global warming to 1.5°C—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests. The WHO’s new report highlights 10 priorities for safeguarding the health of people and the planet that sustains us.”

10 Climate and Health Recommendations from the World Health Organization

1. Commit to a healthy recovery

First, the WHO wants countries to "commit to a healthy, green, and just recovery from COVID-19."

"It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face,” said Maria Neira, MD, MPH, WHO director of environment, climate change, and health in a press release. “Bringing down air pollution to WHO guideline levels, for example, would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80 percent while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change."

2. Prioritize health and social justice

"Our health is not negotiable," says the WHO. "Place health and social justice at the heart of the UN climate talks." Social justice and health are inextricably linked. The conditions in the environments we live in are known as the social determinants of health, include economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and built environment,  and social and community context. Taking steps to increase equity directly impacts these determinants, and thus, health outcomes.

3.  Harness the health benefits of climate action

Though climate change can sometimes feel intangible, fighting climate change can have clear health impacts. For example, researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry found that people who experienced chronic exposure to hazardous air pollution died from COVID-19 at a rate that's 9 percent higher than those who didn't. So decreasing air pollution allows people to better fight airborne viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. The WHO recommends that countries "prioritize those climate interventions with the largest health-, social- and economic gains."

4. Build health resilience to climate risks

"Increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, kill thousands and disrupt millions of lives, while threatening healthcare systems and facilities when they are needed most," says the WHO. To ensure these vital entities survive climate emergencies, the WHO says counties should "build climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems and facilities, and support health adaptation and resilience across sectors."

5. Create energy systems that protect and improve climate and health

Moving away from fossil fuels and relying on renewable resources will have a huge impact on air pollution. And the WHO estimates that, globally, there are 13 air pollution deaths every minute. Countries should "guide a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy to save lives from air pollution, particularly from coal combustion," says the organization.

6. Reimagine urban environments, transport, and mobility

The WHO says cities should "promote sustainable, healthy urban design and transport systems, with improved land-use, access to green and blue public space, and priority for walking, cycling, and public transport." When these systems and services are strong, people can rely on them instead of driving or using rideshares. Plus, it allows people without cars to access health-promoting places like grocery stores, schools, parks, and doctors’ offices.

7. Protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health

WHO suggests that countries should "protect and restore natural systems, the foundations for healthy lives, sustainable food systems, and livelihoods." Prioritizing and protecting nature can also lower the chances of pandemics. "Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide," says Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions."

8. Promote healthy, sustainable, and resilient food systems

"A shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets in line with WHO recommendations, as another example, could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050,” says Dr. Neira. As a result, WHO recommends to "promote sustainable and resilient food production and more affordable, nutritious diets that deliver on both climate and health outcomes."

9. Finance a healthier, fairer, and greener future to save lives

The WHO urges countries to "transition towards a well-being economy," spending the money necessary to effectively tackle climate change.

10. Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action

Though many people have climate change opinions, people in health and science should be leading the way. WHO urges countries to "mobilize and support the health community on climate action."

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