As the climate crisis intensifies, experts are sounding the alarm about the heightened risks it poses to individuals with respiratory illnesses. Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns are exacerbating lung health problems, with implications for millions of vulnerable individuals, according to a recent editorial in the European Respiratory Journal.

Respiratory specialists are urging the European Union (EU) to revise its air pollution regulations to align with the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). In their impassioned plea, they emphasize the urgent need to alleviate the suffering of patients grappling with respiratory conditions.

The connection between the climate emergency and human health is no longer disputable, experts argue, and the consequences are becoming “irreversible.” A surge in pollen and allergens, along with a rise in wildfires, dust storms, and traffic pollution from fossil fuels, are all contributing factors that worsen existing respiratory conditions or give rise to new ones.

Air pollution, a known contributor to respiratory ailments, was responsible for an estimated 6.7 million deaths worldwide in 2019, with 373,000 of those occurring in Europe. Notably, both greenhouse gases and air pollution share many common sources.

Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen and an author of the report, underscored the vulnerability of respiratory patients. “Climate change affects everyone’s health, but arguably, respiratory patients are among the most vulnerable,” she said. “Their symptoms will become worse, and for some, this will be fatal.”

Children are particularly at risk due to the climate crisis and air pollution, as their developing lungs make them more susceptible. Their higher breathing rates and increased time spent outdoors mean they inhale two to three times more air than adults, magnifying their exposure.

Furthermore, early-life exposure to air pollution could heighten the likelihood of developing chronic lung diseases later in life, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bronchitis, even in individuals who may not have smoked.

The experts assert that curtailing greenhouse gas emissions and halting further planetary warming would yield substantial and immediate health benefits. Cleaner air resulting from reduced emissions would lead to improved respiratory health.

To achieve these goals, policymakers must take swift action to mitigate the climate crisis’s impact on both the planet and human health, emphasize respiratory doctors and nurses. They emphasize the need for heightened awareness of these new risks and a commitment to alleviating patients’ suffering.

Recent reports from the WHO have emphasized that reducing emissions would lead to improved air quality. As such, the authors argue that regulating air pollution should be at the forefront of any climate strategy.

On behalf of the European Respiratory Society, which represents over 30,000 lung specialists from 160 countries, the authors are calling on the EU to bring its air quality standards in line with WHO guidelines. Currently, the EU’s limits for fine particles (PM2.5) are 25 micrograms per cubic meter, while the WHO recommends only five micrograms per cubic meter. Similarly, the EU’s nitrogen dioxide limit is 40 micrograms per cubic meter compared to the WHO’s guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

The UK government, for instance, aims to achieve a PM2.5 target of 10 micrograms per cubic meter by 2040, citing challenges related to emissions drifting across the English Channel and from shipping.

In a related review, Jovanovic Andersen co-wrote, “As recent extreme weather events have shown, we need to prepare our community for a much more complex future adapting to the ever-increasing impact of climate-related respiratory disease.” This serves as a stark reminder of the pressing need for comprehensive action to safeguard the respiratory health of individuals amidst the ongoing climate crisis.