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Air pollution: Health risk no. 1

With about 4.2 million deaths annually worldwide no other environmental problem kills people as frequently as air pollution. Particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and ozone affect the human body in many different ways and can cause serious physical and psychological problems.

The European Environment Agency calls air pollution the biggest health risk caused by environmental factors, leading to about 400 000 premature deaths in Europe in 2018. Globally, estimates from the Global Burden of Disease organisation, are a staggering 4.2 million deaths. Air pollution is thus the fifth most common cause of premature deaths.

Especially in urban areas, people are exposed to extremely poor air quality, which is caused by traffic, but also by industry, agriculture and combustion processes, for example when heating in private households. Particularly harmful to health are nitrogen oxides and ozone, as well as fine dust, i.e. the smallest suspended particles in the air.

When inhaled, particulate matter (PM) enters the lungs through the respiratory tract. The smaller the fine dust particles, for example those under 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) or ultra-fine particles down to one nanometre (PM0.1), the further the particles can penetrate into the lungs and reach the alveoli and lung tissue or even pass into the bloodstream. From here, they can directly reach and damage almost all bodily cells. Similar to fine dust, nitrogen oxide and ozone can also penetrate deep into the lungs and trigger inflammation. As a result, messenger substances are released into the blood, which can also negatively affect a wide variety of organs.

The European Environment Agency lists lung cancer at 17%, coronary heart disease, i.e. the undersupply of oxygen to the heart, at 12%, strokes at 11% and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at 3% as the main causes of premature deaths in connection with air pollution. Especially PM2.5, i.e. smaller particulate matter, has been linked to cardiovascular disease through various mechanisms. These include dysfunction of the endothelium, the barrier between blood and tissue, vasoconstriction, high blood pressure, systemic inflammation and oxidative stress triggered by free radicals.

In addition to physical ailments, research has now also shown that air pollution can have a negative impact on the human psyche. From concentration disorders and learning disabilities in children to Alzheimer's and dementia, as well as depression and the onset of suicidal thoughts, air pollution can trigger a range of mental disorders.

Low emission zones and driving bans contribute to cleaner air in our cities. It is clear that improving air quality is necessary to protect human lives. However, the method of imposing more and more bans instead of helping citizens to change their mobility is controversial.

If you want to learn more about the health impacts of air and noise pollution from traffic and other sources, you can do so here.