Adverse Health Impacts from Air Pollution

Sarah Simon

20 min Read Time | April 26th 2023

Key Takeaways


Air pollutants differ from greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gases affect the environment and contribute to global warming, air quality tends to affect human health more.


The core focus should be on how any activity is threatening or destroying one’s health and ultimately people's decent and dignified standard of living.


This topic covers the negative impact only concerning the company's products in priority and through processes.

What is it?

Adverse Health Impacts is defined as “the causation, promotion, facilitation and/or exacerbation of a structural and/or functional abnormality, with the implication that the abnormality produced has the potential of lowering the quality of life, contributing to a disabling illness, or leading to a premature death.

The above is intrinsically connected to one’s healthy and dignified standard of living. Companies, in this aspect, might negatively bring about externalities that impair communities’ health and well-being.

This topic explores the negative direct effects stemming from air pollution. According to the UNDP, “the right to breathe clean air is one of the components of the right to a healthy environment. Air pollution negatively impacts the enjoyment of many human rights, particularly the right to life and the right to health, especially in relation to vulnerable groups.”

Human activity releases a large variety and quantity of air pollutants that have various adverse effects on human, animal, or vegetal health. In particular, industrial processes and the energy, manufacturing, and transport industry generate:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds: VOCs, NMVOCs
  • Nitrogen Oxides and derivatives: NOx, NO2, NO3
  • Sulphur Oxides and derivatives: SOx, SO2, SO3

  • Particulate Matter and derivatives: PM, PM2.5, PM10, dust
    • Particles- classified by size, typically PM10, which are coarse particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres (μm) or less; fine particles, designated PM2.5, with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less
    • Dust is a type of Particulate Matter
  • Carbon Monoxide: CO

  • Hydrocarbons and derivatives: Benzene, Cyclohexane, Poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Methane (CH4), Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

  • Others*: Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), etc

When confused about what kind of a pollutant the company is disclosing, simply check on the internet so the data points can be filled out accordingly. For instance, benzene and toluene are types of hydrocarbons.

These to some degree have a greenhouse gas effect, but more importantly, they have a local impact on life in general, humans in particular. They are the most commonly reported pollutants in terms of air pollution, as they have the greatest negative impact on health and respiratory problems.

*Other pollutants, such as HAP, should be included in the total amount of air pollutants, although not requested as separate data points.

Reminder: Never combine the discussion of these air pollutants with greenhouse gases, as they are separate topics.

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Impact assessment

Air Pollution

The air pollutants emitted by a single company are relatively small when comparing the volume to industrial, national, and global amounts, even if it is a major polluter such as an Oil & Gas or Mining company.

Because air pollution occurs from all sorts of activities worldwide, which cannot be pinpointed to a specific activity or location, pollutants spread and suspend in the air - affecting everyone. This causes adverse health effects, especially when exposed to it for prolonged periods of time.

As companies’ air pollutant emissions are regulated by governments that require mandatory reporting, many companies disclose their air pollutant emissions in their annual CSR/Sustainability report.

When analysing the emissions of a company’s air pollutants, you should report the yearly, absolute quantity of pollutants emitted per category.

After reporting the company’s overall air pollutants and the severity of the impact, you should benchmark these emissions. This will further help readers assess the severity and value of the impact. How significant are the emissions?


Build a strong introduction by making it clear that the emitted pollutants are responsible for deteriorating the air quality and, that even short-term exposure to some of these pollutants can lead to health issues, backed with quantitative data.

Use studies in your introduction to state the impact of these pollutants on human health and explain why it is an issue in the company's industry. Please include impact data for the global/regional scale.

As various symptoms can be triggered by air pollution, in which the blame cannot be attributed to a singular company, it is important to disclose the severity and the value of the impact in the introduction.

You can include the impacts of air pollution specific to the place the company is operating in, if available.

Core analysis

  • Amount of pollutants emitted by the company from operations and product use

  • Please make sure to include tonnes of specific air pollutants as well as the sum of all pollutants emitted.

  • Information on air quality in the place where the company mostly operates

  • Adverse health impacts in the area are attributed to air pollution when direct data is available. Information on air safety levels is also welcomed.

We will not accept analyses that only disclose the amounts of pollutants released (e.g., SOx, NOx, PM, etc.) without adding any other information that helps the reader rate the severity impact.

It should discuss:

  • How many pollutants are emitted by the company? This includes operations and product use (i.e., automobile factories and driving vehicles).

    • You should not discuss only operational air pollution.

  • How many pollutants should a person be exposed to suffer from health consequences? We accept direct impact only to help measure the severity and substantiate the claim. Do not make estimations on the number of illnesses or deaths caused as this would lead to defamation.

  • If this information is unavailable, benchmark the emissions to the industry standard to assess if the emissions are below, inline, or above the industry average.

  • Are the emissions dissipated or concentrated, like in urban areas or pollution 'hot spots'? Has it had a direct impact on people?
    Or do you know of any thresholds (that may be industry-specific)?

  • Compare the company's emissions with the industry average.

  • Including, as a secondary point, whether the company is investing in technologies to control/monitor the emission of these pollutants.

To publish the analysis, it must build a strong case for the issue and be as robust as possible. To do this, please:

  • Try to find the direct impact:
    • Has the company been fined by the authorities?
    • Have they violated any regulations (such as the Clean Air Act)?
    • Are there direct links to the number of people harmed by air pollution?
  • Using external studies, correlate the areas where the company has factories/operations with rising health issues in surrounding communities.

The OECD stats website is a helpful start.

  • Take it a step further: are the emissions dissipated or concentrated, like in urban areas or pollution 'hot spots'? Has it had a direct impact on people?
  • You can use air pollution heat maps and/or other methods to make these extrapolations.
  • This is relevant for the US, so if analysts can find this for other countries, then we can correlate the areas of factories/operations to those areas to find a direct impact.
  • This other source is really good for the US, and also one for the world per country. Keep in mind that this data is very dynamic, so be sure to be nuanced.

You can check if it is located in an air pollution hotspot, globally, or in the US.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) value is a measure of any given location's air pollution level. AQI value below 50 represents good air quality, but higher AQI values increase health risks.

Rather than writing vague analyses that only state how many pollutants have been emitted and finding some comparisons, there needs to be more direct impact data and should be more linked to adverse health impacts (not stating that such an amount of people could potentially be affected).

You should focus on specific events that have been shown to affect people, like reporting on authorities that have fined companies for violating the clean air act or other examples.

What we would find even more interesting is knowing whether communities around the companies' operations, such as factories, have contracted illnesses - respiratory or other.

Pollutants like methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO), are linked to some health conditions, but only in certain circumstances.

This relates to the topic of Accidents/Workforce Health & Safety (and should not be treated under this topic). For example, an analysis can be accepted if there was an event where people/communities were exposed to a high level of concentration (like in closed doors) of such pollutants enduring significant adverse health effects. Groups are negatively affected when exposed to high concentrations indoors, but these same pollutants will not cause significant adverse health effects when released into the atmosphere.


  • In the conclusion, include the absolute amount of pollutants emitted by the company.

  • Make it clear when it is an estimation.


“Company A emitted an estimated total of 10 Mn t of air pollutants, contributing to air pollution deaths in London.”

Caution - Common Mistakes:

You should not only treat the operational emissions but also the pollutants from the fleet.

If the direct data is unavailable to determine the number of people's health that has deteriorated from the company's pollutants, please do not include an estimation about the number of deaths/health issues the company may be responsible for, as being inaccurate.

We also prefer not to include comparisons with the country's or industry’s total emissions since it will probably render a very low percentage (0.00000x%) and, thus, mislead the readers into thinking that the impact is insignificant. It is better to compare it to the industry average, assessing whether the company is below, in line, or above the industry average.

You can mention if the pollutants have increased or decreased over the years in a single statistic (% change). However, avoid comparing the company's year-on-year release of air pollutants, leading to writing about remediation measures. Always remember to give the broader impact first.

To describe the severity of the impact, take into account:

1/ The scale of the impact

  • Is the life of people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

  • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

2/ The scope of the impact

  • Is the impact local, national, or global?

  • How many people are concerned? Thousands? Millions? Billions?

3/ The irremediability of the impact

  • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

  • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

In your analysis, make sure you add value to your readers and go beyond the company’s CSR report by not merely reporting data from the company’s report but going the extra mile of providing additional metrics, studies, and sources to make your analysis robust and the impact value and severity are clear.

Data Points

Some definitions
  • Disclosed: when the data is directly disclosed by the company, i.e., we did not do any calculations/estimations to obtain the figure

  • Estimated: when we have calculated the figure

  • Complete: when the data represents 100% of the company’s operations

  • Partial: when the data is given for only a portion of its operations (not 100%)

How to fill in the “value” metrics:

  • Write out full numbers without any commas instead of using Mn, millions, Bn, etc.

Correct way: 1200000 
Incorrect ways: 1.2 Mn or 1,200,000

  • While reporting percentages, do not input the % symbol

Correct way: 15
Incorrect way: 15%

  • We want to have homogenous and comparable units:
    • Pollutants emitted: tonnes (t)

  • If the figures are given in tonnes or metric tons in the report, then we can report them as it is but we will write them as tonnes in the analysis for consistency -> no need to convert anything ->

1 tonne = 1 metric ton

  • If the figures are given in tons in the report, then we must check whether the company has used the metric system or not (check whether the company has used kg, km,°C, etc.);
    • If yes, then tons actually mean tonnes -> we can report the figures as it is but write them as tonnes in the analysis for consistency -> no need to convert anything

If not, then tons mean US tons -> we will have to convert it to tonnes (source)

Proxies by Industry

We can use proxies to estimate the impact for this topic. Here are a few that can be used:

Automobile Industry: Fully electric vehicles do not emit air pollutants so they should be excluded from calculations.

  • We consider that a traditional small to mid-sized car emits 0.023 t of NOx and 0.0014 t of PM in its lifespan of eight years (2.87 kg of NOx and 0.17 kg of PM every year)1,2.

  • HEVs emit 30% fewer pollutants relatively, so 0.016 t of NOx and 0.00098 t of PM in eight years (2 kg of NOx and 0.12 kg of PM per year)3;p40.

  • Further, considering a heavy vehicle has a lifespan of 12 years or 321,868 km, and emits up to 5 g/km of NOx and 0.001 g/km


Professional and Commercial Services Industry (companies providing parking services)

  • Emissions from cold start alone 6;p5:

  • CO: (50.3 * % of old cars + 9.1 * % of new cars) * car number * average distance traveled by car before it is out of the parking lot * 182.5;

  • NOx: (0.07 * % of old cars + 0.01 * % of new cars) * car number * average distance traveled by car before it is out of the parking lot * 182.5;

  • VOCs: (3.5 * % of old cars + 0.8 * % of new cars) * car number * average distance traveled by car before it is out of the parking lot * 182.5


Airline Industry and Professional & Commercial Services Industry (for Airport Operators)

  • For Landing Take-Off (LTO):
    • An LTO operation for an average domestic fleet emits 0.8 kg of SO2, 8.1 kg of CO, 10.2 kg of NOx, 2.6 kg of NMVOCs, and it emits 2.5 kg of SO2, 50 kg of CO, 41 kg of NOx, 15 kg of NMVOCs for an international trip4;p97.
  • For Cruising:

    • When the fuel consumed is not disclosed: The emissions released during LTO operations represent only 10% of the total (implying 90% are released during cruising )5;p2.

    • When the fuel consumed is disclosed:
      • For domestic cruising: Around 1 kg of SO2, 7 kg of CO, 11 kg of NOx, and 0.7 kg of NMVOCs are released per ton of fuel consumed4;p97.

      • For international cruising: Around 1 kg of SO2, 5 kg of CO, 17 kg of NOx, and 2.7 kg of NMVOCs are released per ton of fuel consumed4;p97.


Helpful Statistics

A helpful statistic that shows how widespread the issue is, for example, is that 91% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed the limits set by the WHO.

A helpful statistic that shows the scale is, for example:

  • In 2019, 6.6 million people died from air pollution

  • It is the leading environmental risk factor for early death

A helpful statistic that shows how widespread the issue is, for example:

  • 91% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.

  • The Air Quality Index (AQI) value is a measure of the air pollution level of any given location. AQI value below 50 represents good air quality, but higher AQI values increase health risk.

  • Air pollution exposure to PM2.5 (micrograms per cubic meter) shows scale per country

  • Air pollution in OECD countries

  • Air pollution from SO2 by sector (p15) & by country (p18)

  • Air pollution in the US

  • Bazil air pollutants limits:

Direct data from the company

  • Annual reports

  • CSR/ESG reports

  • URD (Universal Registration Document)

  • ESG data tables on the Website of the company

  • Official websites

  • External sources

Whenever there are doubts about the meaning of something, we encourage to thoroughly read the reports of the company, considering footnotes, and methodology frameworks, as those might contain the answer to your doubts.


1. Check if the assigned analysis has more recent data (we require the latest data available)

NO: do not refresh the analysis and please report it (via the Report feature or to members of the team)

YES: Move to step 2

2. Check the intro: Is it up to standard? Are sources working? Is data current and relevant?

YES: do not refresh the introduction

NO: move to step 3

3. Check if the most relevant pollutants are being discussed

YES: stay with the same pollutants and update the note with the most recent data on the number of air emissions

NO: move to step 4

4. Find the most relevant pollutants and include their most recent data.

5. Include information on air quality in the area.

7. Fix the conclusion

8. Update the data points as per the available data.

9. Fix the Headline


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