Air pollution is a growing problem of public health concern, with data from the World Health Organization (WHO) showing that 99% of the global population breathes air that contains high levels of pollutants, with low-income and middle-income countries suffering from a disproportionate level of exposure. A review published by Dr Gary Fuller and colleagues at Imperial College London in April 2023 highlighted the impact that air pollution has on health across all stages of life. GlobalData epidemiologists expect that as the issue of air pollution worsens, the associated morbidity will continue to increase over the coming years.
Air pollution is the contamination of the environment resulting from any solid particles, liquid droplets, or gases that modify the natural environment. There are various sources, such as household fuel burning, motor vehicles, forest fires, and agricultural practices. Air pollution causes respiratory illnesses and other diseases, and is a significant contributor to morbidity and mortality worldwide, linked to around seven million deaths annually, according to the WHO.
The report published by Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group included studies that explored the link between air pollution and health in order to examine the impacts of air pollution at all stages of life, including pregnancy, childhood, and adulthood. Key pollutants of interest included black carbon, small particulate matter (PM₂.₅), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), and sulphur dioxide (SO₂). Air pollution was found to impact male fertility by significantly lowering sperm count and motility. Air pollution also impacts fetal development, with an increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, and pre-term births. One of the studies included for review published by Smith and colleagues in 2017 observed that small particulate matter pollution was directly attributable to 3% of infants in London with low birth weight.
Imperial College Environmental Research Group also highlighted that children living in London are particularly at risk of developing chronic conditions, such as poorly developed lungs, asthma, high blood pressure, and mental illness. According to GlobalData’s forecast, there are estimated to be over 720,000 lifetime diagnosed prevalent cases of asthma in people aged under 18 years in the UK in 2023, with this figure expected to grow by 0.4% each year.
The health impacts of air pollution exposure persist with age. The review found a link to various non-communicable diseases including an elevated risk of stroke, dementia, cancer, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Across the seven major pharmaceutical markets (7MM) (US, UK, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan), there are currently more than 63 million total prevalent cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic respiratory disease), and GlobalData epidemiologists expect this figure to grow over the coming years. The findings of Imperial College’s review support the growing body of evidence that air pollution is a major contributor to morbidity and mortality on a global scale.