Air pollution is driving a global public health crisis. It is responsible for one in nine deaths worldwide, and touches everyone given 92% of the human race live in places that do not meet World Health Organisation guidelines. As it is also driving a climate crisis – with increasingly heavy health implications – doctors, nurses, public health practitioners and other healthcare professionals are coming together to call for practical solutions to cut pollution levels in cities and deal with both.
In a new global initiative called Unmask My City, these health groups are using air quality monitors, smartphones, and innovative LED light masks that change colour according to pollution levels to highlight the preventable and direct impacts of air pollution. These include asthma attacks, increased risks of heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and strokes, and climate change-related heatstroke, tropical disease spread, and more. The sources of and solutions to air pollution are clear. It is up to authorities to make better choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get our cities into the World Health Organization’s green “healthy” air zone by 2030.
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- Air pollution is responsible for 1 in 9 deaths worldwide, and thousands of cities around the world are consistently breaching limits for dirty air. Everyone – particularly the oldest, youngest, and most vulnerable – are paying the price. Addressing poor air quality and unmasking our cities by 2030 will have huge immediate and long term benefits for the health of our communities, for our economies, and for our shared global climate. #UnmaskMyCity is a response by health professionals to this global crisis. Find out more and get involved here: https://goo.gl/OmDrmH
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- Today is #WorldAsthmaDay & health professionals around the world are calling for clean, safe air in our cities as part of #UnmaskMyCity. Find out more and get involved here: https://goo.gl/OmDrmH
- Air pollution is responsible for 1 in 9 deaths worldwide. #UnmaskMyCity is a new initiative by health professionals calling for action to tackle this global health crisis https://goo.gl/OmDrmH
- Do you work in the health sector? Concerned about the impact poor air quality on your patients? Find out more about #UnmaskMyCity, a new initiative by health professionals calling for clean, safe air in our cities https://goo.gl/OmDrmH
- Clean, renewable energy, electric vehicles, the elimination of fossil fuels subsidies, smarter urban planning, and better public transport infrastructure are just a few ways policy makers can help to avoid countless preventable deaths from air pollution and drastically improve air quality for all https://goo.gl/OmDrmH #UnmaskMyCity
- Air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million premature deaths per year. Doctors are at the front lines, and see the increasing impact air pollution has on patient mortality and morbidity. They are now speaking out globally, like they did with cigarette smoking, to demand action from decision makers on this absolutely preventable threat to public health.
- Air pollution is not just a problem for China or India. The world is becoming increasingly urban, and as it does our urban environments are becoming more and more polluted. In 1800, only three percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Today, more than half do, and by 2050 two-thirds will. Thousands of cities around the world already consistently breach air pollution limits, and this problem will worsen without concerted action.
- Eliminating air pollution is a health, climate, and economic imperative. Improving air quality and ‘unmasking’ our cities will save millions of lives, improve the health of billions, reduce health costs, drive new economic opportunities, and address the challenge of global climate change. Solutions to reduce urban air pollution are some of the most effective ways to tackle climate change in the near term. Turning around the global trend of increasing climate pollution by 2020 with the intent on reaching World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air by 2030 is critical to avoiding unmanageable levels of climate climate in the future.
Doctors were pivotal in the anti-tobacco campaigns of the late 20th century, not only helping people understand the risks of cigarette smoking, but building a compelling case to propel decision makers into action, and ensure a healthier future for people in countries all over the world.
Just like the anti-tobacco campaigns of the late 20th century, doctors are sounding alarms about the health risks of poor air quality in our cities, and through the Unmask My City initiative are aiming draw attention to the public health crisis air pollution is driving.
Air pollution drives direct health impacts like increased risk of heart disease, asthma attacks, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke; and also indirect threats like heatstroke, tropical disease spread and more through its contribution to global warming. The Lancet Commission for example released a report in 2015 that not only reaffirmed the severity of the threat climate change poses to global health, but labelled it a “medical emergency”. The Lancet showed that tackling the crisis could be the “greatest health opportunity of the 21st Century”, especially considering it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and public health.
To highlight the global nature of this problem, Unmask My City groups are conducting “community monitoring” activities, and mapping personal exposure to bad air using AirBeam air quality monitors and the AirCasting smartphone app by US NGO HabitatMap. However, while soupy pollution in China and India makes headlines, bad air remains a largely invisible problem. To demonstrate that even clear skies can hide risky levels of air pollution, Unmask My City also makes use of custom-built LED light masks that change colour according to how good or bad the air is.
The AirBeam measures PM2.5 particulates and provides estimates of micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter air (µg/m3). The scale it uses is based on the revised Air Quality Index for PM2.5, and the colours mean:
- Green: Good quality air with little to no risk.
- Yellow: Moderate risks for those unusually sensitive to air pollution.
- Orange: Unhealthy for sensitive groups
- Red: Unhealthy for everyone, with sensitive groups potentially facing serious health effects.
Using the AirBeam and light masks in Turkey, the USA, Poland, Serbia, India, Brazil, and the UK, we found that despite there being a number of clear days where particulate pollution stayed in the green, more often than not it consistently dipped into the yellow, orange and red, showing risky and unhealthy levels of pollution.
The reasons for this vary between cities – some face problems from traffic pollution, others from heavy industry, some from reliance on dirty coal power, and others from low stack emissions such as coal boilers for heating – but the result for all is the same: regular exposure unhealthy air for their citizens. As the world is becoming increasingly urban, with more than half of people living in cities today and two-thirds by 2050, it is little wonder that increasing numbers of people worldwide are being regularly exposed to urban air pollution.
This problem will worsen without concerted action. Fortunately, we have the knowledge, the technology, and the global understanding that cleaning up our planet is not a choice, but an urgent necessity, and the rewards for action are tremendous.
Many policies to address air pollution and climate change are “no-regret”, in that they will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality. For example by investing in clean energy over fossil fuels, and in public and active transport over internal combustion engine cars governments will not only be reducing the climate threat, immediately improving air quality and reducing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, but will also be supporting technologies already shown to improve the lives of the world’s poor faster and cheaper.
Everyone has a right to safe, clean air, and that means air pollution levels must be brought in line with World Health Organisation safety standards in our cities. To get there by 2030, we need practical solutions and tangible city level policy changes to drive a clear, downward global trend in urban air pollution. This will save millions of lives, improve health outcomes for billions of people, and make a huge contribution to greenhouse gas reductions needed to keep the world safe from climate change crises.
Tools and Resources
- Press release: Doctors and health professionals push for action to unmask cities as air pollution toll grows (Unmask My City)
- Factsheet: Global Air Pollution, Health and Climate Change (Unmask My City)
- Factsheet: Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health (WHO)
- Equipment: AirBeam air quality monitor (HabitatMap)
- Toolkit: Coal power generation and health in Iskenderun bay, Turkey (HEAL)
- Report: A Breath of Fresh Air (UK Health Alliance on Climate Change)
- Report: Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health (Lancet Commission)
- Report: Managing climate risks to well-being and economy (Committee on Climate Change UK)
- Statement: 300,000 health professionals call for transition away from coal (CAPE)
Images and Video
- Photo gallery, Social graphics
- Video: Unmask My City – Salt Lake City, Unmask My City – Warsaw
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- “The mainstream medical organizations of the United States and the world recognize the seriousness of the damage we are doing to the climate. They are calling it the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” that “will put the lives and well being of billions of people at increased risk,” and that “threatens the health of every American.” – Brian Moench, MD, Founder and Board President, Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment
- “We as doctors are worried. It is really hard for us to change anything without the cooperation of decision makers. In my opinion we should start fighting air pollution with system-wide changes like introducing standards for boilers and coal. There should also be improvements made to information systems – such as sending societal alerts for high pollution levels much earlier than we currently do.” – Dr Piotr Dąbrowiecki from the Polish Federation of Asthma, Allergy and COPD Patients’ Organisations
- “Health professionals recognize the threat that air pollution poses to their patients, and they feel a responsibility to speak out about it. Urban air pollution is getting worse in many places, and its effect on human health and the health of the global climate is also worse than was previously known. By overhauling transport and energy systems in our cities, we can help achieve a safe climate and improve public health, build stronger economies, and enhance quality of life in ways that benefit everyone.” – Jeni Miller, PhD Executive Director at Global Climate and Health Alliance
- “Medical literature clearly demonstrates the overwhelming health impacts of air pollution and climate change on human health, wellbeing, and development. Children are worst affected, with diseases suffered in early life affecting them for decades to come. Through the Unmask My City campaign, doctors and nurses around the world are fighting these impacts first hand – both in the clinic and in the role as advocates for the public’s health.” – Dr Nick Watts, Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
- “Air pollution is robbing citizens of their right to a healthy life. People have a right to know the quality of environment they live in and it is the duty of the Government to provide that information and take all suitable action to protect its citizens. Unfortunately in India, this is not the case. Lack of data and adequate action to control pollution is rampant. The Government is still in denial of the problems, especially the health issues as a consequence of air pollution. It is imperative that the public health community take charge and engage with the government to frame suitable policies to protect public health and environment.” – Shweta Narayan, Coordinator, SIPCOT Community Environmental Monitors, India
- “From a public health perspective, wearing masks to protect against air pollution is a solution of last resort — our goal should be prevention first and foremost. To address the root causes of air pollution, we need decisive action from policymakers and cooperation across sectors, including the health sector. By working together to tackle air pollution, we’re saving lives, saving money, and preserving our planet.” – Jennifer Wang, Global Coordinator, Healthy Energy Initiative, Health Care Without Harm
- “Healthcare organizations in Brazil are increasingly engaged in combating climate change among other essential environmental public health issues. UMC campaign is mobilizing Brazilian members of the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network for the improvement of air quality in the city of São Paulo. We believe the health sector can make a real difference in the fight against air pollution and climate change, and contribute to significantly improve the quality of life of 12 million people living in São Paulo.” – Dr Vital Ribeiro, President of the Board of Healthy Hospitals Project, Sao Paulo
- “Poor air quality can lower the chances of men and women to get pregnant, lower the chances of staying pregnant, and can decrease the health of your child-to-be. Clean air is a choice we make for ourselves, our neighborhood, our larger community, and our future.” – Kirtly Parker Jones MD, Professor Emerita, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Utah
- “Air pollution remains a serious health risk in Europe. Ninety per cent of the urban population is exposed to levels considered harmful to health by the World Health Organization. We have the solutions – such as replacing coal with renewable power sources. The challenge is to create the political will to rapidly implement them for better health and to mitigate climate change.” – Roberta Savli, Deputy Director, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)
- “As health professionals, our voices are powerful. Our experience and expertise can influence actions and advocacy on behalf of our communities who face the health impacts of air pollution each day. Tackling air pollution is one of the most important ways that we can improve our communities’ ability to breathe and live with clean air while we also tackle climate change. The Unmask My City initiative is a call to action for a healthier, more just and more sustainable society. We cannot wait any longer to address the effects of air pollution and climate change on our health and planet.” – Linda Rudolph MD Co-Convenor, US Climate and Health Alliance
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