Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution

Top 17 Environmental Problems

Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution

The effect that humanity is having on the environment is becoming ever-more important. Through our actions we are destroying habitats and endangering the lives of future generations.

At this point there is no denying the fact that our environment is changing. Hundreds of studies have been conducted to demonstrate that this is happening and it is having an effect on life around us.

However, many may be unaware of the specific issues that have led to these changes. Terms “climate change” and “genetic modification” are commonplace, but without additional information it is difficult to see why they actually matter.

To complicate the matter, many of these issues are linked to one another. The key is that they are all important challenges that need to be confronted.

Here we examine the biggest environmental problems facing our planet today and why they should matter to you.

17. Genetic Modification of Crops

Environmental issues caused by man-made chemicals are becoming clearer. For example, there has been a 90% reduction in the Monarch butterfly population in the United States that can be linked to weed killers that contain glyphosate.

There is also some speculation that genetically-modified plants may leak chemical compounds into soil through their roots, possibly affecting communities of microorganisms.

16. Waste Production

The average person produces 4.3 pounds of waste per day, with the United States alone accounting for 220 million tons per year. Much of this waste ends up in landfills, which generate enormous amounts of methane.

Not only does this create explosion hazards, but methane also ranks as one of the worst of the greenhouse gases because of its high global warming potential.

15. Population Growth

Many of the issues listed here result from the massive population growth that Earth has experienced in the last century. The planet’s population grows by 1.13% per year, which works out to 80 million people.

This results in a number of issues, such as a lack of fresh water, habitat loss for wild animals, overuse of natural resources and even species extinction. The latter is particularly damaging, as the planet is now losing 30,000 species per year.

14. Water Pollution

Fresh water is crucial to life on Earth, yet more sources are being polluted through human activities each year. On a global scale, 2 million tons of sewage, agricultural and industrial waste enters the world’s water every day.

Water pollution can have harmful effects outside of contamination of the water we drink. It also disrupts marine life, sometimes altering reproductive cycles and increasing mortality rates.

13. Deforestation

The demands of an increasing population has resulted in increasing levels of deforestation. Current estimates state that the planet is losing 80,000 acres of tropical forests per day.

This results in loss of habitat for many species, placing many at risk and leading to large-scale extinction. Furthermore, deforestation is estimated to produce 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

12. Urban Sprawl

The continued expansion of urban areas into traditionally rural regions is not without its problems. Urban sprawl has been linked to environmental issues air and water pollution increases, in addition to the creation of heat-islands.

Satellite images produced by NASA have also shown how urban sprawl contributes to forest fragmentation, which often leads to larger deforestation.

11. Overfishing

It is estimated that 63% of global fish stocks are now considered overfished. This has led to many fishing fleets heading to new waters, which will only serve to deplete fish stocks further.

Overfishing leads to a misbalance of ocean life, severely affecting natural ecosystems in the process. Furthermore, it also has negative effects on coastal communities that rely on fishing to support their economies.

10. Acid Rain

Acid rain comes as a result of air pollution, mostly through chemicals released into the environment when fuel is burned. Its effects are most clearly seen in aquatic ecosystems, where increasing acidity in the water can lead to animal deaths.

It also causes various issues for trees. Though it doesn’t kill trees directly, acid rain does weaken them by damaging leaves, poisoning the trees and limiting their available nutrients.

9. Ozone Layer Depletion

Ozone depletion is caused by the release of chemicals, primarily chlorine and bromide, into the atmosphere. A single atom of either has the potential to destroy thousands of ozone molecules before leaving the stratosphere.

Ozone depletion results in more UVB radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. UVB has been linked to skin cancer and eye disease, plus it affects plant life and has been linked to a reduction of plankton in marine environments.

8. Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is the term used to describe the continued lowering of the pH levels of the Earth’s oceans as a result of carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that ocean acidity will increase by 150% by 2100 if efforts aren’t made to halt it.

This increase in acidification can have dire effect on calcifying species, such as shellfish. This causes issues throughout the food chain and may lead to reductions in aquatic life that would otherwise not be affected by acidification.

7. Air Pollution

Air pollution is becoming an increasingly dangerous problem, particularly in heavily-populated cities. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels deemed unfit by the organization.

It is also directly linked to other environmental issues, such as acid rain and eutrophication. Animals and humans are also at risk of developing a number of health problems due to air pollution.

6. Lowered Biodiversity

Continued human activities and expansion has led to lowered biodiversity. A lack of biodiversity means that future generations will have to deal with increasing vulnerability of plants to pests and fewer sources of fresh water.

Some studies have found that lowered biodiversity has as pronounced an impact as climate change and pollution on ecosystems, particularly in areas with higher amounts of species extinction.

5. The Nitrogen Cycle

With most of the focus being placed on the carbon cycle, the effects of human use of nitrogen often slips under the radar. It is estimated that agriculture may be responsible for half of the nitrogen fixation on earth, primarily through the use and production of man-made fertilizers.

Excess levels of nitrogen in water can cause issues in marine ecosystems, primarily through overstimulation of plant and algae growth. This can result in blocked intakes and less light getting to deeper waters, damaging the rest of the marine population.

4. Natural Resource Use

Recent studies have shown that humanity uses so many natural resources that we would need almost 1.5 Earths to cover our needs. This is only set to increase as industrialization continues in nations China and India.

Increased resource use is linked to a number of other environmental issues, such as air pollution and population growth. Over time, the depletion of these resources will lead to an energy crisis, plus the chemicals emitted by many natural resources are strong contributors to climate change.

3. Transportation

An ever-growing population needs transportation, much of which is fueled by the natural resources that emit greenhouse gases, such as petroleum. In 2014, transportation accounted for 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation also contributes to a range of other environmental issues, such as the destruction of natural habitats and increase in air pollution.

2. Polar Ice Caps

The issue of the melting of polar ice caps is a contentious one. While NASA studies have shown that the amount of ice in Antarctica is actually increasing, these rises only amount to a third of what is being lost in the Arctic.

There is strong evidence to suggest that sea levels are rising, with the Arctic ice caps melting being a major contributor. Over time, this could lead to extensive flooding, contamination of drinking water and major changes in ecosystems.

1. Climate Change

The majority of the issues previously listed contribute or are linked to climate change. Statistics created by NASA state that global temperatures have risen by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, which is directly linked to a reduction in Arctic ice of 13.3% per decade.

The effects of climate change are widespread, as it will cause issues with deforestation, water supplies, oceans and ecosystems. Each of these have widespread implications of their own, marking climate change as the major environmental issue the planet faces today.

The Final Word

The impact that human activities have on the environment around us is undeniable and more studies are being conducted each year to show the extent of the issue.

Climate change and the many factors that contribute to emissions could lead to catastrophic issues in the future.

More needs to be done to remedy the major environmental issues that affect us today. If this doesn’t happen, the possibility exists that great swathes of the planet will become uninhabitable in the future.

The good news is that many of these issues can be controlled. By making adjustments, humanity can have a direct and positive impact on the environment.

Please feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below or engage your friends in discussion about the environment on social media.


Featured Image Credit: Ian Burt @ Flickr


Air Pollution

Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution

Air pollution – the combination of outdoor and indoor particulate matter, and ozone – is a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in its Global Burden of Disease study provide estimates of the number of deaths attributed to the range of risk factors for disease.1

In the visualization we see the number of deaths per year attributed to each risk factor. This chart is shown for the global total, but can be explored for any country or region using the “change country” toggle.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. In low-income countries it tops the list. In 2017, it was responsible for an estimated 5 million deaths globally. That means it contributed to 9% – nearly 1-in-10 – deaths.

Click to open interactive version

Globally, air pollution contributed to 9% of deaths in 2017.2

In the map shown here we see the share of deaths attributed to air pollution across the world. In 2017, this ranged from a low of 2% across high-income countries, to close to 15% across many countries in South and East Asia.

Click to open interactive version

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. But its impacts go even further, also being one of the main contributors to global disease burden.

Global disease burden takes into account not only years of life lost to early death, but also the number of years lived in poor health.

In the visualization we see risk factors ranked in order of DALYs – disability-adjusted life years – the metric used to assess disease burden. Again, air pollution is near the top of the list making it one of the leading risk factors for poor health across the world.

Air pollution not only takes years from peoples’ lives, but also had large effect on quality while they’re still living.

Click to open interactive version

Air pollution is a health and environmental issue across all countries of the world, but with large differences in severity.

In the interactive map we show death rates from air pollution across the world, measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 people of a given country or region.

We see that the death rates tend to be highest across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This highlights the large differences globally: death rates in the highest burden countries are more than 100 times greater than across much of Europe and North America.

The burden of air pollution tends to be greater across both low and middle income countries for two reasons: indoor pollution rates tend to be high in low-income countries due to a reliance on solid fuels for cooking; and outdoor air pollution tends to increase as countries industrialize and shift from low-to-middle incomes.

A map of the number deaths from air pollution by country can be found here.

Click to open interactive version

In the visualization we show global death rates from air pollution over time – shown as the total air pollution, in addition to the individual contributions from outdoor and indoor pollution.

Globally we see that in recent decades the death rates from total air pollution has declined: since 1990 the number of deaths per 100,000 people have nearly halved. But, as we see from the breakdown, this decline has been primarily driven by improvements in indoor air pollution.

Death rates from indoor air pollution have seen an impressive decline, whilst improvements in outdoor pollution have been much more modest.

You can explore this data for any country or region using the “change country” toggle on the interactive chart.

Click to open interactive version

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the underlying data sources. This entry can be cited as:

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “Air Pollution”. Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

BibTeX citation

@article{owidairpollution, author = {Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser}, title = {Air Pollution}, journal = {Our World in Data}, year = {2020}, note = {}}


Air pollution: know your enemy

Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution

Sometimes you can’t even see it, but air pollution is everywhere.

Perhaps you think that air pollution doesn’t affect you because you don’t live in a city shrouded in smog. You are most ly wrong.

Statistically, nine ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization safe levels. This means that with every breath, you are sucking in tiny particles that attack your lungs, heart and brain.

For millions of people across the globe, this is causing a host of problems – illness, lower IQs and death chief among them.

We can’t stop breathing. But we can do something about the quality of our air, and global action is growing at all levels. To have any chance of truly clearing the air, however, we need to know our enemy better and what we can do to defeat it.

What is air pollution and where does it come from?

Air pollution is broken down into ambient (outdoor) air pollution and indoor air pollution. This pollution comes from many sources, the majority of them a result of human activity:

  • the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal to generate electricity for homes and businesses, or petrol and diesel to power our cars, buses, ships and planes
  • industrial processes, particularly from the chemical and mining industries
  • agriculture, which is a major source of methane and ammonia
  • waste treatment and management, particularly landfills
  • dirty indoor cooking and heating systems, a major problem in the developing world
  • volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes

These sources spew out a range of substances including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground level ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead – all of which are harmful to human health.

Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to tiny, invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter, which can be as small as a molecule.

These particles are clumps of poison, containing anything from black carbon (soot), to sulphates to lead. The smallest particles are the deadliest: PM2.5 particles, which are 2.5 microns or less in diameter, and PM10, which are 10 microns or less in diameter.

These tiny killers bypass your body’s defences and lodge in your lungs, bloodstream and brain.

How much of this pollution we breathe in is dependent on many factors, such as access to clean energy for cooking and heating, the time of day and the weather. Rush hour is an obvious source of local pollution, but air pollution can travel long distances, sometimes across continents on international weather patterns. Nobody is safe.

What is air pollution doing to us?

Air pollution has been called a major global health epidemic, causing one in nine of all deaths. It also has massive negative impacts on climate change and economies.


In 2016, PM2.5 exposure reduced average global life expectancy at birth by approximately one year.

Around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers attributable to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution accounts for:

  • 25 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17 per cent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 16 per cent of all deaths from stroke
  • 15 per cent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 8 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Air pollution doesn’t just kill, however. It also contributes to other illnesses, hampers development and causes mental health problems.

One study found that ambient PM2.5 contributed to 3.2 million cases of diabetes in 2016.

Research from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development in young children – with lifelong implications. An estimated 17 million babies under one year old live in areas where air pollution is six times higher than safe limits.

Other studies have linked air pollution to lower intelligence levels, with the average impact equivalent to one lost year of education, and to an increased risk of dementia, with those living closest to major traffic arteries up to 12 per cent more ly to be diagnosed with the condition.

A photo of people wearing respiratory masks during smog in Beijing, China. Photo by Reuters


If you are lucky enough to not suffer the negative health impacts of air pollution, it can still hit you in the pocket. Air pollution creates a burden on healthcare systems, which costs taxpayers money.

Air pollution from energy production in the U.S. caused at least US$131 billion in damage to its economy, including increased healthcare costs, in 2011.

One Oxford University study found that air pollution from cars and vans cost society 6 billion pounds per year.

The European Environment Agency found that emissions from 14,000 industrial facilities in Europe cost society and the economy up to 189 billion euros in 2012.

Without action, the costs will rise. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are projected to be US$18-25 trillion in 2060. In addition, the costs of pain and suffering from illness are estimated at around US$2.2 trillion by 2060.


Air pollution doesn’t just impact human health and economic growth. Many of the pollutants also cause global warming.

Take black carbon, which is produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves. Black carbon is deadly, but it is also a short-lived climate pollutant.

If we were to reduce the emissions of such pollutants, we could slow global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades.

Methane, a large percentage of which comes from agriculture, is another culprit. Methane emissions contribute to ground-level ozone, which causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. It is also a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide – its impact is 34 times greater over a 100-year period, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Where is air pollution worst?

Air pollution is a problem across the globe, but it disproportionately affects people living in developing nations. For example, the 3.8 million people who die each year from indoor air pollution are overwhelmingly from countries where people living in poverty are forced to cook, or heat their homes, with dirty fuels in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

According to the World Health Organization’s air quality database, 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. In high-income countries, the proportion is 40 per cent.

Delhi, India and Cairo, Egypt have the worst PM10 pollution levels the world’s megacities (over 14 million people), but Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico and Turkey all have cities in the top-ten list of most-polluted places.

You can find out how your city is doing here.

What is being done about air pollution?

A global movement to address air pollution is growing. BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 80 million citizens.

By instituting policies and programmes to curb transport and energy emissions and to promote the use of clean energy, cities are proving to be focal points where change that improves the lives of the most people possible is happening.

From Accra to Mexico City, local governments are implementing plans to improve air quality. And change is happening.

The World Health Organization in 2018 found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.

The rise of renewable energy is also set to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year.

What can I do?

We are all part of the problem. Business, public buildings and households account for around half of all PM2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions. But this means we are all part of the solution. By making small changes to our lives, we can all play our part in clearing the air.

For instance, by reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, individuals can contribute to cutting harmful methane emissions. There is a wide range of other areas where people can make a difference when it comes to reducing air pollution.

Manage waste

Compost food and garden items. Recycle non-organic trash if available. Reuse grocery bags and dispose of remaining trash by local collection. Never burn trash, as this contributes directly to air pollution.

Cook and heat clean

Burning coal and biomass (e.g. wood) contributes to indoor air pollution when used for cooking and outdoor air pollution when used for heating. Check efficiency ratings for home heating systems and cookstoves to use models that save money and protect health.

Move mindfully

Use public transportation, cycle or walk. Consider switching to a hybrid or electric if you must drive. Diesel vehicles, particularly older ones, are large contributors of black carbon, which are carcinogenic for health and damaging to our climate.

Rethink your energy use

Turn off lights and electronics not in use. Use energy-efficient equipment. Rooftop solar panels may be an option to generate hot water and power.

Call for change

Call on local leaders to adopt national air quality standards that meet WHO guidelines. Support policies that strengthen emissions standards and provide incentives for purchase of cleaner vehicles, low-energy appliances and energy-efficient housing.

Watch our short animations for more information.

>I don’t drive during rush hour

>I walk to work

>I drive an electric vehicle

>I compost my waste

>I recycle my waste

>I don’t burn waste

>I use renewable energy to power my home

>I use clean energy to cook

>I check my air pollution levels

>I turn off lights and electronics not in use


Coal Burning Causes the Most Air Pollution Deaths in China, Study Finds

Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution
Continue reading the main story

BEIJING — Burning coal has the worst health impact of any source of air pollution in China and caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, Chinese and American researchers said on Thursday.

Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the deadly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere, according to a study the researchers released in Beijing.

Those figures are consistent with what Chinese scientists have been saying in recent years about industrial coal burning and its relation to air pollution.

The study, which was peer-reviewed, grew a collaboration between Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s top research universities, and the Health Effects Institute, based in Boston, a research center that receives funding from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the worldwide motor vehicle industry. The researchers’ primary aim was to identify the main sources of air pollution leading to premature deaths in China.

The study attributed 155,000 deaths in 2013 related to ambient PM 2.5 to industrial coal burning, and 86,500 deaths to coal burning at power plants. Fuel combustion of both coal and biomass in households was another major cause of disease that year, resulting in 177,000 deaths, the study concluded.

The researchers also found that transportation was a major cause of mortality related to PM 2.5, with 137,000 deaths attributed to it in 2013.

In recent years, Chinese scientists have said that motor vehicle emissions are a leading source of air pollution in cities, although not as great as coal burning.

Vehicle ownership is rising fast in China, and officials, carmakers, and oil and gas companies have quarreled over setting emissions standards.

China consumes almost as much coal annually as all other countries combined, and coal burning in the country is the biggest source of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the leading cause of climate change. Chinese cities are among the most polluted in the world. Provinces in northern China, where steel, cement and power plants are common, have the highest concentrations of PM 2.5 in the country.

But the growth in China’s coal consumption has begun to slow. Last year, there was a slight decline in coal use compared with 2014, largely because of an economic slowdown that has been faster and deeper than many experts had expected.

In addition, the Chinese government announced plans in 2013, when popular anxiety over air pollution reached new heights, to curb coal use in three major population centers in the east. Placing limits on coal use is also consistent with pledges made by President Xi Jinping to try to reduce the effects of climate change.

The new study projected four scenarios different possible government policies, and each projection showed a decline in the average levels of PM 2.5 in coming years.

But in the study’s executive summary, the researchers said that “despite these air pollution reductions, the overall health burden is expected to increase by 2030 as the population ages and becomes more susceptible to diseases most closely linked to air pollution.”

Even under the most stringent policies on coal use and energy efficiency, coal is expected to remain the single biggest contributor to PM 2.5 and China’s health burden in 2030, the study said.

The study was a follow-up to a Global Burden of Disease study examining deaths in 2013, which estimated that PM 2.5 contributed to 2.

9 million premature deaths worldwide, with 64 percent of those in China, India and other developing countries in Asia. Premature deaths due to PM 2.5 exposure were also high in Eastern Europe.

A larger study on 2013 deaths was published last year by The Lancet, a British medical journal.

That study estimated the number of premature deaths in China in 2013 related to PM 2.5 exposure at 916,000, a population of 1.4 billion. Researchers found that outdoor air pollution was the fifth leading cause of premature deaths in China, behind high blood pressure, smoking, high consumption of sodium and low consumption of fruit. Household air pollution was the sixth leading cause.

An earlier Global Burden of Disease study that examined health figures for 2010 found that outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths, nearly 40 percent of the global total. Exposure to ambient particulate matter that year was the fourth leading cause of premature deaths in China.

In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, warned that “urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation.” It said that as many as 3.6 million people could end up dying prematurely from air pollution each year, mostly in China and India.

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Environmental pollution and social factors as contributors to preterm birth in Fresno County

Top 17 Negative Health Effects of Environmental Pollution

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