Global Science Academies take a stand against air pollution

CAPE TOWN | The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) was part of a high level delegation taking a stand against air pollution. Dr Caradee Wright, SAMRC’s Senior Specialist Scientist in the Environment and Health Research Unit, accompanied Himla Soodyal, Executive Officer of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) to the event. ASSAf teamed up with Brazil, Germany and the United States of America science academies, and the US National Academy of Medicine, to issue an urgent call to governments, businesses and citizens to reduce global air pollution. 

The four academies handed a publication of a science-policy statement to senior UN representatives and high-level diplomats from South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the USA at a ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York.

In the statement, the five National Academies request for emissions controls in all countries and proper monitoring of key pollutants - especially PM2.5, which is one of the smallest particulates in the air we breathe and can enter and impact all organs of the body. The science academies specify the need for increased funding to tackle the problem and substantial investment in measures to reduce air pollution. This can also help to reduce climate change and contribute to meeting the goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5ºC.

"The health impacts of air pollution are enormous, it can harm health across the entire lifespan, causing disease, disability, and death. It is time to move the issue much higher up in the policy agenda. Strengthening synergies with other policy areas, including sustainable development, climate change and food security is important," says Dr Wright.

Unequivocal scientific evidence shows that air pollution affects human health across our entire lifespan. It can affect everyone, even unborn babies, with young, old and vulnerable people impacted the most. The health impacts include the premature deaths of at least five million people per year, as well as chronic health conditions like heart disease, asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), diabetes, allergies, eczema and skin ageing. Air pollution also contributes to cancer, stroke and slows lung growth of children and adolescents. Evidence is growing that air pollution contributes to dementia in adults and impacts brain development in children.

"If we do not urgently address this global challenge, air pollution will continue to take a startling toll in terms of preventable disease, disability, and death, as well as in avoidable costs of care. The good thing is that air pollution can be cost-effectively controlled. We need to act much more decisively. We need more public and private investments to tackle air pollution that match the scale of the problem," says U.S. National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.  

Burning of fossil fuels and biomass for heat, power, transport and food production is the main source of air pollution. The global economic burden of disease caused by air pollution across 176 countries in 2015 was estimated to be USD 3.8 trillion. Measures, which could have positive impacts on reducing air pollution, are woefully underinvested in. President Luiz Davidovich of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences says that air pollution and climate change share an important, common source, which is the combustion of fossil fuels, and adds that we need to tackle air pollution to make progress towards combating climate change.

"National Academies are uniquely placed to address complex issues such as the interplay between air pollution and health. Academies are independent fora where scientists from all disciplines come together to exchange and reflect upon their findings. Such a collaboration across disciplines is essential to find solutions to these problems," says German National Academy of Sciences President Jörg Hacker.

The academies say that both private and public investments are insufficient and do not match the scale of the problem. Air pollution is preventable with sufficient action, suffering and deaths from dirty air can be avoided. Clean air is vital to life on earth as is clean water. Air pollution control and reduction must now be a priority for all.

“We are only at the beginning of what we hope to achieve. Our five academies have launched the call, but tackling this issue will need the participation of many more stakeholders. We invite science academies, research institutes, universities and individual scientists worldwide to join the initiative to help solve this global crisis. We also hope that policy-makers and the public will engage with us to improve the future health of people and the planet," Foreign-Secretary Margaret Hamburg of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine.

The statement is available on:

Release date: 
Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 13:18
Keletso Ratsela
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