Skip to main content

On 7th April each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates World Health Day to draw attention to a specific health issue concerning people all over the world.. This year’s theme, “My Health, My Right,” reminds us that every human being has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. And yet, this right is increasingly under threat.

This theme takes on particular importance when considering the silent threat of air pollution. According to the WHO, in 2019 99% of the world’s population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met, jeopardising their health. Respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and cancer are just some of the consequences of breathing polluted air. According to estimates from the British Medical Journal, in 2019 8.3 million deaths globally were attributable to fine particle pollution, of which 5.1 million were linked to fossil fuel pollution. Understanding the link between air pollution and human rights is essential for protecting both individual wellbeing and the collective right to a healthy environment.

The importance of healthy air

Clean air is not just about survival; it’s about living a full and healthy life. Every breath we take impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. Polluted air can lead to decreased lung function, chronic respiratory illnesses, and even cognitive decline. It can exacerbate existing health conditions, putting additional strain on individuals and healthcare systems.

The impact of air pollution is felt disproportionately across social groups. Children, older persons, and those with low incomes are more likely to suffer from the short and long-term impacts of air pollution, and are also more likely to lack resources to protect themselves from polluted air.

Furthermore, clean air is crucial for a healthy environment. Pollution negatively affects ecosystems, which impacts food production, water quality, and biodiversity. Our wellbeing and the planet’s wellbeing are interconnected, which means that protecting the right to clean air is not just about individual health, but also about the health of the planet we inhabit.

A shared responsibility for clean air

Clean air should not be a privilege; it’s a human right. In 2021 the UN recognised the universal right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. To strengthen this, we need to specifically recognise the right to clean air. This would raise its importance on the global agenda and compel governments to prioritise policies and regulations aimed at reducing air pollution. This could include stricter emission standards for industries, investments in renewable energy sources, and urban planning that promotes clean transportation options. We need policy approaches that look beyond borders to address the threats to both health and climate.

BEST-COST, as a Horizon Europe research project, is examining the connections between air and noise pollution and the resulting socioeconomic impacts in Europe. By developing new research methodologies to accurately measure the consequences of pollution, we aim to support the EU and national governments to adopt scientifically-backed policies that reduce pollution levels while considering the connected socioeconomic inequities.

By working together on solutions, we can create a world where everyone can breathe clean air and live a healthy life. World Health Day 2024 serves as a powerful call to action – a call to fight for the right to clean air for all.