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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

UNC Researcher Calls for Collaboration to Better Understand Impact of Air Pollution on Health

The need to understand how air pollution affects health is greater than ever, reports a new article by Dr. Jason West, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

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[Photo: Dr. Jason West]

Globally, air pollution is among the most important risk factors for health and is responsible for millions of deaths each year. Despite increased scientific understanding within recent decades of the widespread effects of air pollution upon health, more work needs to be done. While past policy efforts have succeeded in reducing particulate matter and trace gases in North America and Europe, adverse health effects are still found, even at these lower levels of air pollution.

Dr. West and a cohort of international expert co-authors explore the need for further research in the article, “What we breathe impacts our health: improving understanding of the link between air pollution and health,” published online March 24 in Environmental Science & Technology.

The paper is one product of a workshop involving leading researchers from two communities – air pollution science and air pollution health effects science – whose members traveled from multiple countries in North America, Europe, and Asia to discuss new opportunities to improve the global understanding of air pollution’s health effects.

“The impact of air pollution on health is still underappreciated,” Dr. West said. “Air pollution and its health impacts change as economic and energy development occurs around the world, and as new pollution regulations are implemented. It will continue to evolve over the next century in ways that are interrelated with climate change.”

Air pollution science now offers new possibilities for research through improved tools like measurement methods that detect more chemical components, cheap sensors that can be widely deployed, satellites that view Earth from space and models that represent relationships between pollution sources and receptors.

According to the paper’s authors, future policy decisions will benefit from the improved understanding such research can offer, especially when it comes to the interactions and health effects of different chemical species and source categories. Achieving this increased understanding will require air pollution scientists and engineers to work increasingly closely with health scientists.

“In this paper, we make a case for the need for two communities of scientists – air pollution scientists and air pollution health effects scientists – to work together more effectively,” Dr. West said. “By better understanding the importance of different air pollutant sources for public health effects, we hope to inform better management decisions.”