Climate Change, Health Promotion, Built Environment, Government Policy

Vulnerability of Urban Populations to Ambient Air Pollution

~Written by Joann Varickanickal (Contact:

Dannenberg et al. 2011

Urban populations have always been exposed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution because urban regions have high-density industries and populations (Dannenberg et al., 2011). High levels of pollution result from the concentration of sources of combustion (Dannenberg et al., 2011). There are two types of pollutants: primary and secondary. Primary pollutants are those that are directly emitted (Dannenberg et al., 2011). These include sulfur dioxide, which is released from power plants, and carbon monoxide from fossil fuel combustion (Dannenberg et al., 2011). In contrast, secondary pollutants result from the physical and secondary conversion of other pollutants (Dannenberg et al., 2011). Tropospheric ozone is one example; it forms through the chemical reactions of anthropogenic and biogenic precursors (Dannenberg et al., 2011).

Both primary and secondary pollutants lead to negative health consequences, including eye irritation, fatigue, headaches and more severe effects such as bronchoconstriction, lung impairment and neurological damage (Dannenberg et al., 2011). Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to ambient air pollution. For example, as a result of physiological and psychological factors, children are more sensitive to ambient pollution (Vanos, 2015). Furthermore, those with less education and lower socio-economic status also face a greater risk of exposure to ambient air pollution; thus, highlighting pollution an issue of environmental justice as well (Dannenberg et al., 2011).

Since air pollution is multifaceted, it is not easy to determine a solution. More research is required, to determine the severity of ambient air pollutants in different regions and how different populations are impacted. Furthermore, it is important to develop and implement policies that will reduce the prevalence of ambient air pollutants and their health consequences. For example, in order to provide evidence-based advice on the impacts of air pollution on health, the WHO Regional Office for Europe developed two projects-the “Review of Evidence on Health Aspects of Air Pollution” (REVIHAAP) and the “Health Risks of Air Pollution in Europe” (HRAPIE), which were completed in 2013 (WHO, 2013). The findings from these projects guided changes in the EU air quality policies that were implemented that same year (WHO, 2013).

The built environment also plays an important role in mitigating air pollution. Regions should employ sustainable development practices to ensure energy-efficient land use and transportation systems to reduce emissions (Dora et al., 2015). Moreover, attention should be given to the proximity of homes and schools to sources of pollution (Dannenberg et al., 2011). Urban Structure Types (USTs) is one method that could be used, as it is a spatial indicator that describes urban regions through the assessment of land use, physical properties and environmental characteristics (Réquia Júnior et al., 2015). The UST method assesses the morphology of housing, green spaces and industrial buildings which can be compared, to assess the relationship with a health risk (Réquia Júnior et al., 2015).

Like other global health problems, air pollution is complex. It is not unique to one region because it reaches across borders. As a result, governments and organizations from various regions need to work together to mitigate this problem.


Dannenberg, A. L., Frumkin, H., & Jackson, R. J. (2011). Making Healthy Places:

Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability. Washington: Island Press.

Dora, C., Haines, A., Balbus, J., Fletcher, E., Adair-rohani, H., Alabaster, G., … Neira, M. (2015). Indicators linking health and sustainability in the post-2015. The Lancet, 385(9965), 380–391. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60605-X

Réquia Júnior, W. J., Roig, H. L., & Koutrakis, P. (2015). A novel land use approach for assessment of human health: The relationship between urban structure types and cardiorespiratory disease risk. Environment International, 85, 334–342. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2015.09.026

Vanos, J. K. (2015). Children’s health and vulnerability in outdoor microclimates: A comprehensive review. Environment International, 76, 1–15. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2014.11.016

World Health Organization. (2013). Health risks of air pollution in Europe-HRAPIE project