How does pollution affect human health?

Stinging eyes, breathlessness, a cough that won’t budge: air pollution – especially when it’s cause by fine particles – is irritating, but can also be the cause of serious diseases. It even puts lives in danger: in France, air pollution cuts life expectancy by two years. And in New Delhi, this figure leaps to 10 years. In terms of deaths on a global scale, air pollution is just as dangerous as smoking, and even more serious than alcohol and unclean water (there are three times as many air pollution-related deaths) and HIV (six times more). Who is most at risk? People suffering from respiratory and cardiac disorders, diabetes, infants, seniors and pregnant women.

A factor in serious diseases

The effects of air pollution on health are well understood. Scientific studies have shown that they compromise the human immune system. As a result, the body undergoes oxidative stress* and a systemic inflammatory response** is created, which may increase the risk of other diseases. These include:

  • Respiratory conditions such as pharyngitis, asthma, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Lung cancer: 17% of deaths can be attributed to air pollution.
  • Cardio-vascular diseases: air pollution is responsible for a lack of sufficient oxygen being provided to the heart muscles, which leads to diseases such as arrhythmia, arterial hypertension, cardiac arrest and thrombosis.
  • Neurodegenerative diseases: air pollution also has a disastrous effect on brain health. The risk of neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, is accentuated by exposure to fine particles generated by magnetic friction.
  • Reproduction and development issues in children such as infertility, miscarriage, stunted foetal growth and low birthweight babies, learning difficulties, and so on.

Every year, atmospheric pollution and fine particles cause 40,000 premature deaths in France and 238,000 deaths in Europe. Harvard researchers believe that this figure should be re-evaluated, and would attribute nearly 100,000 premature deaths in France per year to outdoor air pollution caused by fossil fuels.

Indirect effects of pollution on human health

Atmospheric pollution is harmful to the earth’s ecosystems, both on land and in the sea. In 2020, harmful levels of nitrogen deposits were observed in 75% of the total surface area of EU ecosystems. Fine particles end up in runoff waters, then flow into our rivers and oceans. They also attach themselves to plants and are then swallowed by animals. Air pollution disrupts ecosystems, destabilises the food chain and impacts our daily diet, and therefore our health. That’s why it is so important to find measures to reduce it. It’s a matter of saving human lives.

Oxidative stress occurs when a cell can no longer manage the excessive presence of toxic molecules, mainly from cellular respiration and free radicals. They can damage cells and DNA.

** The systemic inflammatory response syndrome is a set of symptoms occurring in response to an attack on the body during infectious shock, severe trauma, extensive burns, pancreatitis, and so on. It is the most common cause of respiratory distress syndrome in adults.

Discover more questions

As we inhale 15,000 litres of air every day, we are continually exposed to air pollution, especially in large cities. These gases and fine particles are not only harmful to our health, but they also damage the environment and ecosystems and accelerate climate change. Where does air pollution come from? Although pollutants may be of natural origin: pollens, forest fires, sand mists, soil erosion, and volcanic eruptions generate pollution over which we have very little control, human activity is the main source of air pollution. That is evidenced by the sharp decline in air quality from the 19th century, with the development of industry and road traffic.
One in five deaths around the world is attributable to outdoor air pollution yet politicians are struggling to remedy the situation. In France, the government has even been found at fault by the Court of Justice of the European Union and the French Council of State for not doing enough, while air pollution causes more than 40,000 premature deaths every year. What’s to blame? Natural phenomena certainly contribute (pollen, forest fires, soil erosion, volcanic eruptions, etc.), but most of the damage is caused by human activity (agriculture, industry, transport, construction, etc.), which generates gases and fine particles. In some parts of France transport is the worst culprit, in others, agriculture comes top of the list. In the fight against outdoor air pollution in France, measures must now be taken on domestic heating and road transport, which are respectively responsible for half and a quarter of fine particle emissions in Ile-de-France.
Electric vehicles help fight against global warming and reduce the air pollution that causes 307,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. But electric vehicles are not a miracle solution. They require a lot of energy to produce, charging them may need large amounts of fossil fuels (depending on the source of the electricity used) and – like petrol or diesel cars – they emit fine friction particles.