“No one has died from this either [contaminación atmosférica]. I don’t want a public health alarm to go off, because there isn’t. Madrid is one of the longevity cities in the world and with one of the best transportation systems and more and more boilers and vehicles are being renovated. “These statements by the president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso (PP), on Wednesday on the SER network, scientists, ecologists and political leaders have been stunned. María Neira (La Felguera, Asturias, 1962) is the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment of the World Health Organization (WHO) since 15 years ago. And he doesn’t understand the president of Madrid either. “From a scientific point of view I don’t have any kind of explanation. Not from the social and economic point of view, “she says in a telephone interview. And ditch:” Pollution kills.
Question. Does pollution kill?
Answer. Pollution kills. The evidence has been overwhelming for more than 30 years and there are more than 70,000 scientific publications that indicate it. And there is no discrepancy or disagreement in the scientific community. On the contrary, every day we add more evidence and more knowledge about the effects that pollution has on our health. I also believe that common sense tells us that 100 years ago Europe lived with a lot of pollution that affected health and that we have been fighting against this situation. Today we know that economic development can also be achieved without affecting people’s health.
P. Since when is there a scientific certainty that pollution kills and affects health?
R. The evidence has been accumulating since before, but with the rigor with which we know it now, with the studies that demonstrate these effects very clearly, we speak of more than 30 years ago. Also, I think it is also a matter of intuition. Any asthmatic knows that if he breathes polluted air he feels worse. You don’t need a lot of scientific studies either to know that if you live in New Delhi, Shanghai or Beijing, you breathe with great difficulty. And it is known that pollution has a very negative effect in the medium, short and long term.
P. What diseases does air pollution cause?
R. The first thing that is most affected is the airways, our lungs. Chronic problems arise, such as asthma, or acute pneumonia. But it is that these polluting particles also pass into the circulatory system and from there they can reach any organ. That is why we know, for example, that a part of heart attacks has to do with exposure to polluted air. Now we also know that the particles cross the placental barrier, which can affect the neurological development of fetuses that have not even breathed contaminated air. Every day we have more evidence and more evidence of the damage that these toxic particles cause to our body.
P. There is always talk of premature deaths caused by pollution. What does this term mean?
R. The term premature death refers to a reduction in life expectancy. We are talking about how mortality increases after a certain age and life expectancy decreases. But, in addition, we also talk about chronic diseases caused by air pollution. And those diseases cost a lot to our healthcare systems.
P. Is there a scientific consensus on premature deaths caused by air pollution in the world?
R. There is absolutely no disagreement or debate on this question. The WHO gives a figure of seven million premature deaths per year, which is based on our methodology. Other methodologies raise it to almost eight million. And then, regarding the diseases, there are no discrepancies either. I am not aware of any university or scientific academy that has studied air pollution and that raises discrepancies regarding the health effects. The debate may be about how much more it affects health. For example, in the case of Alzheimer’s we are still studying its relationship against pollution.
P. From the point of view of science, the evidence is growing. But, from a political point of view, do you think there is more skepticism in recent years?
R. There is no such debate. It is not acceptable because it is not based on science. Upside down. I have participated in the meetings of the C40, an association of the world‘s largest cities against pollution, and I have seen with satisfaction how mayors commit to achieving the WHO recommendations in 10 or 15 years. I’ve seen them commit, understand that it is a public health issue. But it is also social. What mayor wants to boast of having polluted air? None. They want to show off that their city is clean and that they breathe clean air. I believe that progress has been made and there is positive competition between mayors, which is why other types of statements are surprising.
P. To what do you blame Díaz Ayuso’s statements?
R. I have no explanation. I do not know. From a scientific point of view I don’t have any kind of explanation. Not from a social and economic point of view. Mayors, regional governors and prime ministers are becoming more and more engaged. Whether they do it later or not is another matter.