The Air We Breathe

Air. The remarkable, life giving gift unique to our planet is under threat.

Air pollution is now the single biggest environmental health risk to humans.

Outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.

World Health Organization

Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.

Some 88% of premature deaths caused by air pollution occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest number in the WHO Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions.

Reducing outdoor air pollution also reduces emissions of CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon particles and methane, thus contributing to the near- and long-term mitigation of climate change.


If you are lucky enough to live in a country where blue sky days are a regular occurrence and you never had to tell your child they can’t play outside today because the air is too bad, then you may not be aware of the unfolding health crisis caused by air pollution.

The problem is closer to home than you think.

Every day, billions of people are forced to breathe air deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization and millions are dying every year as a result.

What is air pollution?

Air pollutants are substances suspended in air that are damaging to the health of humans. Many pollutants are a direct result of human activity, including motor vehicle exhaust, industrial processes, power plant emissions, agricultural burning and forest fires.

These activities release a host of pollutants into the air we breathe, including:

  • Particulate Matter (PM)
  • Ground level ozone
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Lead
  • Sulphur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

Particulate Matter

Fine particulate pollution (PM2.5), consists of particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less which are small enough to pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream. This makes PM2.5 pollution particularly dangerous for human health and has been liked to premature death from heart and lung disease.

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Air pollution: A growing problem around the world

Nowhere is the problem more more severe or impact more people than Asia. In China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh alone, 3 billion people are breathing highly toxic air. These people have no way to protect themselves, or their families. Most concerning of all is that the problem is getting worse at an alarming rate.

Southeast Asia, until recently a region with relatively clean air has seen a worrying deterioration in air quality.

Even in developed regions such as the United States and Europe , where significant progress has been made to improve air quality, research shows that air quality is damaging the health of millions. In 2012, 432,000 European citizens died prematurely as a result of air pollution.

This is an urgent global problem that cannot be solved by countries working alone. Take the case of Singapore which has seen dramatic and hard won improvements in air quality partly wiped out by smoke from illegal burning of forest and agricultural land in neighboring Indonesia.

Join us as we explore just how clean the air is in your city, and how it compares to the rest of the world.

Data: The World Bank

Next: Act 1 Air

How does air pollution affect your city?