New WHO report: Air pollution is a leading contributor to noncommunicable diseases

by CCAC secretariat - 12 September, 2017
Environmental factors are main causes of NCDs with 12.6 million deaths a year linked to the environment

A new World Health Organization (WHO) report highlights the links between air pollution and the epidemic of non-communicable diseases  (also called NCDs) that is affecting people worldwide.

Heart disease, stroke, lung disease and cancers, are among the top five causes of death today, and one-quarter to one-third of deaths from these diseases are due to air pollution according to the WHO estimates. 

All in all, ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution caused more than 6 million deaths from these diseases in 2012.

Noncommunicable diseases are often associated with preventable risk factors like physical inactivity, unhealthy diet and the harmful use of alcohol and tobacco. What is less well known is that environmental factors are also main causes.

The importance of environmental factors as “health risks” has increased in past decades as public health campaigns gained ground against many infectious disease threats. At the same time, peoples’ diets changed, physical activity levels decreased and developing cities have experienced rapid growth, with high levels of air pollution from traffic, waste and industrial sources.   

The report, ‘Preventing Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) by Reducing Environmental Risk Factors’, says globally 23% of all deaths could be prevented through healthier environments. Children are most at risk with growing evidence indicating that early life exposure to environmental risks like chemicals and air pollutants increases the lifetime risk of developing NCDs.  

Air pollution is the leading environmental health risk humans now face. Worldwide, almost one third of the cardiovascular disease burden is attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution (17% and 13% respectively), second-hand tobacco smoke (3%) and exposure to lead (2%). Globally 29% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) deaths are attributable to indoor air pollution, 8% to outdoor air pollution and 11% in workplaces. 

Fraction of NCD deaths attributable to selected risk factors

The WHO recommends a number of strategies to limit pollution, including many that Climate and Clean Air Coalition initiatives are also addressing, like limiting industrial emissions and moving to clean energy sources, and clean and efficient transport. The report also recommends reducing exposure to ionizing and ultra-violet radiation, and chemicals like solvents, pesticides, asbestos and formaldehyde to prevent lung and other cancers.

The report provides a number of examples of how pollution reduction strategies can make difference. These include:

  • During the 2008 Beijing Olympics air pollution was decreased through measures like traffic control, shutting down highly polluting factories, and changing coal fired boilers to natural gas. These actions were associated with a decrease in cardiovascular mortality.
  • The United Kingdom and countries in Eastern/Central Europe showed a decrease in lung cancer after switching from solid to non-solid fuels in stoves.
  • Compact cities – which have a higher population density, greater public transport use, combined with walking and cycling – show significantly reduced disease rates, in particular from cardiovascular disease.


The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s initiatives aim to reduce dangerous indoor and outdoor air pollution by promoting cleaner transport options through its diesel initiative, reducing agricultural emissions from burning and livestock, the proper disposal of municipal solid waste, reducing industrial air pollution from the brick sector, and by providing cleaner household energy and access to improved lighting, cooking and heating products. The Coalition supports governments through institutional strengthening and planning and works with leading development banks and other financial institutions on strategies to finance action to improve air quality.

The Coalition is a lead partner in BreatheLife a global campaign – led by the WHO and UN Environment – to mobilize cities and individuals to protect health and the environment from air pollution. Cities, subregions and national governments are encouraged to join the BreatheLife Network to support action to achieve WHO Air Quality Guidelines by 2030. Learn more about the BreatheLife campaign at

The report is the third in a series of reports based on data from the publication “Preventing disease through healthy environments”. The two previous reports are: “Don’t pollute my future” and “The public health impacts of chemicals”.

Download the report from the WHO website here