In 2002, in the rural highlands of San Marcos in Guatemala, scientists tested a hypothesis over two years. The residents of this region tended to use open wood fires for cooking and heating, exposing the women and children of the household to a steady supply of air pollutants.
The researchers visited more than 5,000 households, noting those in which there was a pregnant woman or children under four months old, and gave some households improved chimney stoves, called planchas.
These researchers of the RESPIRE study— the first randomized controlled trial on the heath effects of cooking interventions– found that the households with improved stoves saw a 33 per cent reduction in cases of severe pneumonia in children.
Today is World Pneumonia Day, fourteen years after that study was completed in November 2004, and air pollution– both indoor and outdoor– has been unequivocally linked to lower respiratory infections, including pneumonia, which causes more child deaths than any other disease.
Air pollution is certainly not the only risk factor for pneumonia, which is caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi, but it is a significant one, alongside malnutrition, poverty, poor hygiene and sanitation.
According to the World Health Organization, around 93 per cent of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (or 1.8 billion children) breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk.
In 2016, an estimated 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.
That is just the tip of the iceberg– there is a large and growing body of evidence that air pollution is linked to cancer, stroke and heart disease, and emerging evidence of links to dementia, Alzheimer’s, cognitive impairment, even autism. It steals the lives of 7 million people and smothers human potential to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Coincidentally, today is also World COPD Day, which raises awareness of yet another disease that is linked to air pollution and that, in 2015, caused an estimated 3.17 million deaths (or 5 per cent of all deaths that year).
While the main cause of COPD is tobacco smoke (either from actively smoking or breathing secondhand smoke), other risk factors include exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution and occupational dust and fumes– and, children are yet again vulnerable: exposure to indoor air pollution represents a risk factor for an unborn child to develop COPD later in life.
From the womb to the grave, almost none of us escape air pollution: 95 per cent of people breathe unhealthy air, the bulk of whom live in low- and middle-income countries.
World Pneumonia Day and World COPD Day are a timely reminder of the heavy health costs of air pollution– and, conversely, the potential health gains from action for better air quality.
Read more from the WHO:
Factsheet on pneumonia
Factsheet on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Read more on the health burden of air pollution on the BreatheLife website here.
Banner photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images