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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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WHO Gains New Commitments to Tackle Global Air Pollution

Elizabeth Witherspoon, Ph.D.

The World Health Organization (WHO) held its first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health at its headquarters in Geneva, Oct. 30 - Nov. 1, 2018. In addition to gathering the scientific research and academic community, the WHO invited national and city governments, intergovernmental organizations, philanthropy, and other members of civil society. Representatives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) joined the more than 900 participants.

The conference was a response to a resolution of the Sixty-eighth World Health Assembly in 2015, which asked for a stronger response by health and other sectors to prevent air pollution-related diseases, exposure to air pollution, and their costs to society. In 2016, The “Road Map for an Enhanced Global Response to the Health Effects of Air Pollution” adopted at the Sixty-ninth World Health Assembly, requested a global conference to review progress and decide on further action.

Representatives from NIEHS in the U.S. delegation were Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), and Srikanth (Sri) Nadadur, Ph.D., a program director, Exposure, Response and Technology Branch, DERT.

During the first two days, participants heard presentations of scientific evidence, identification of gaps, and recommended solutions. They learned that air pollution – both ambient and household – is estimated to cause 7 million deaths, annually. The vast majority – 5.6 million, or 80% – are from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and 1.5 million from pneumonia. The conference underscored links between air pollution and the global epidemic of NCDs. It also encouraged the health sector to advance policies on clean household energy, transportation, and waste.

On the third day, countries, urban mayors, and civil society were invited to make commitments to the global advocacy campaign, BreatheLife2030, to meet WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines and reduce climate emissions. Specifically, a call was made to have at least 500 BreatheLife cities and 20 countries, by 2020, committing to reach WHO air guidelines levels by 2030.

BreatheLife: A Global Campaign for Clean Air

The BreatheLife2030 campaign mobilizes communities to reduce the impact of air pollution on health and climate. It has created a growing network of 52 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 153 million citizens, whose goal is to cut annual deaths from air pollution in half by 2030.

It provides a platform for cities to share best practices and demonstrate progress in their journey to meeting WHO air quality targets by 2030. The campaign works with municipalities to expand monitoring efforts that keep citizens informed and facilitates more sustainable urban development. It also educates people about the burden air pollution poses to our health and climate and provides meaningful ways for action both locally and globally.


The conference featured a “Call for Urgent Action” to reduce by two-thirds the annual deaths from air pollution by 2030.

“The burden of air pollution can only be reduced through global collective action,” said Marie-Noël Brune-Drisse, WHO lead for children’s environmental health. “The conference received more than 70 commitments from countries, cities, United Nations organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society to tackle air pollution, or to contribute to the global battle against air pollution. This provided a positive message of hope and encouraged further engagement of the global community to keep moving on a path towards cleaner air.”

“NIEHS is an important and trusted source of research into environmental health effects. Clear and robust evidence into the effects of air pollution on human health is crucial for driving informed, evidence-based policy, as action on air pollution is needed more than ever, as 93% of children in the world are breathing polluted air,” added Brune-Drisse.

NIEHS hosts the WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences. In this role it assists WHO in promoting international cooperation among environmental health research institutes around the world, promoting global awareness of emerging issues in environmental health, preparing training materials, and conducting education and training efforts in the environmental and occupational health sciences.

“The time is apt for WHO to conduct this meeting. Air pollution is a global issue,” said Nadadur, who oversees NIEHS research grants on air pollution and human health. He said he was glad to see scientists from other countries referencing NIEHS-funded landmark studies as the standards.

In addition, he saw this meeting as an opportunity to build relationships and collaborate in new ways on this complex issue. In particular, he noted good representation by physicians from India, with whom he has ongoing projects and subsequent meetings planned.

Nadadur agreed with the importance of having participation by representatives from civil society at this meeting, such as city mayors and other country ministers.

“It made some of them aware of the gravity of the situation and led to the commitments on the third day to improve the quality of air in many countries,” he said.

The conference was organized in collaboration with UN Environment, the World Meteorological Organization, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, the World Bank, and the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).