“Every Breath You Take…”

Faye Hudson
4 June 2019




Approximately 7 million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution, with about 4 million of these deaths occurring in Asia-Pacific. Air pollution is indiscriminate. Whether you live in a wealthy city or a poorer slum area, the effects are wide reaching and potentially lethal.

World Environment Day is a UN environment-led global event, which takes place on June 5th every year and is celebrated by thousands of communities worldwide. This year, the campaign aims to raise awareness of the causes and impacts that air pollution has on the environment and the population, and how we can combat the effects. Since it began in 1972, this day has grown to become the single largest celebration of our environment each year.

The host of this year’s World Environment Day is China and they will have numerous celebrations across multiple cities, with Hangzhou (province of Zhejiang) hosting the main event. China is a growing green sector and has emerged as a climate leader by owning half the world’s electric vehicles and 99% of the world’s electric buses. By hosting, the Chinese government will be able to showcase to the rest of the world its innovation and progress towards a cleaner environment.

The truth in numbers about the air we breathe

  • 9 out of 10 people breathe air deemed unsafe by the World Health Organisation (WHO)
  • Inhaling air pollution takes away at least 1-2 years of a typical human life
  • Air pollution is not a recent occurrence. In 1952, the Great Smog of London killed 8000 people
  • 80% of lung diseases are caused due to pollution from cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles
  • Living in highly polluted cities can double your risk of stroke by damaging the inner lining of your veins and arteries
  • A microscopic pollutant – PM2.5 – is so tiny that it can pass through many of our body’s protective armours such as mucous membranes and other barriers, to damage our lungs, heart and brain
  • Household air pollution is a significant challenge and 3 billion houses do not have access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking 
  • Air pollution costs the global economy $5 trillion every year in welfare costs

South African Air Pollution

  • In 2012, 7.4% of all deaths in South Africa were due to chronic exposure to fine particulate matter
  • The WHO have called air pollution “a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths”. An estimated 20,000 South Africans die from air pollution every year
  • The Mpumalanga province is the number one global hotspot for NO2 emissions




The main source of household air pollution is the indoor burning of fossil fuels, wood and other biomass-based fuels to cook, heat and light homes.




In many countries, energy production is a leading source of air pollution. Coal-burning power plants are a major contributor, while diesel generators are a growing concern in off-grid areas.




The global transport sector accounts for almost ¼ of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and this proportion is rising. Transport emissions have been linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths.



There are two major sources of air pollution from agriculture: livestock, which produces methane and ammonia, and the burning of agricultural waste. Around 24% of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide come agriculture, forestry and other land-use.



Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and black carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, an estimated 40% of waste is openly burned.


Not all air pollution comes from human activity. Volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes also cause problems. Sand and dust storms are particularly concerning.

Effects on health

Air pollution can cause both long-term and short-term effects. Some of the short-term effects include sneezing and coughing, eye irritation, headaches and dizziness. Particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometres pose far higher health risks because they have the potential to be inhaled deeply into the lungs and could cross into the bloodstream. 

Longer-term effects include higher rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases (such as asthma). Pregnant women who are exposed to air pollution can have babies with brain development issues and there has been a proven link between cognitive impairment in both children and adults and prolonged exposure. 


Effects on the environment

Air pollution can affect the planet in several ways including an increase in acid rain, eutrophication of water bodies, introduction of toxins to the food chain, ozone depletion, reduced plant growth, loss of soil fertility, haze, and most importantly, climate change. An immense quantity of greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2 and methane) are released into the air. These gases facilitate an increase in global temperatures by trapping the heat in the atmosphere and their concentrations have started to change the planet’s climate. A rise in the planet’s climate can lead to stronger storms, more floods, higher summer temperatures, increasing droughts and wildfires, and sea level rise. An increase in any of these events will disturb the natural balance of the ecosystems.



What can YOU do to #BeatAirPollution?

As individuals we can make simple and easy changes to our lifestyle to reduce the amount by which we contribute to air pollution. Maybe by using public transport or car sharing, cycle or walk to work, reduce your consumption of meat and dairy (perhaps go veggie for a couple of days a week!), compost your organic waste and recycle the non-organic stuff, and save energy by switching off lights and electronics when you’re not using them.

World Environment Day Mask Challenge:

1.Make a pledge and challenge others to take action: May 24th – June 4th

  • Take a photo or video of yourself wearing a mask to post on social media. Don't have a mask?
  • Get creative and make your own!
  • In your post share the action you’ll take to reduce air pollution
  • Tag 3 people/organisations/companies to challenge them to do the same.
  • Use #WorldEnvironmentDay and #BeatAirPollution in your social media posts and don’t forget to tag @UNEnvironment.

2. On World Environment Day, show how you have fulfilled your pledge!

  • Take another photo or video of yourself fulfilling your commitment and post it on social media.
  • Use #WorldEnvironmentDay and #BeatAirPollution in your social media posts and don’t forget to tag @UNEnvironment.