IAAF Ambassador Paula Radcliffe underscored the importance of the IAAF's air quality initiative during a presentation at the First World Health Organisation Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva on Wednesday (31).
"When we live in a world where seven million people a year die from polluted air related illnesses we cannot wait, we need to act now," Radcliffe said, speaking during a session on Communication, advocacy and partnerships, whose purpose was to highlight unique advocacy initiatives in clean air campaigns.
"We need more awareness based on solid facts, we need more education on the impact of poor air quality on our communities and our children and we need more voices to demand better policies around pollutants."
Radcliffe, who was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma at 14, spoke of many of the challenges she and other athletes who are asthma sufferers face when running, training and competing, and how those difficulties are exacerbated by poor air quality. Athletes, Radcliffe said, can play a pivotal role in helping us further understand the impact of poor air quality on long term health. It's especially important now, as more people worldwide run for exercise and leisure than do any other sport combined.
"About half a billion people around the world run regularly and this figure is growing," Radcliffe said, adding that countries in Asia are witnessing the highest growth in those numbers. "More and more people are living in urban areas – almost two thirds of our global population will live in urban areas over the next two decades. Ninety percent of that urban growth will be centred on Asia and Africa."
But it's in urban areas, according to WHO surveys, that the vast majority of the world's polluted air is centralised. Only about 20% of the world's urban population lives in areas that comply with air quality standards considered safe by the WHO.
"Every day around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years - 1.8 billion children - breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk," said Radcliffe, who today joined UN Environment as an Advocate for Clean Air. "Add the growth in running and the general push to get society and our children to do more exercise and we have a perfect storm brewing."
Athletes, Radcliffe pointed out, are uniquely positioned to at least begin quelling that storm before it gains strength.
"Through elite athletes – let’s be honest, we measure and monitor everything – we can conduct controlled tests," Radcliffe said.
"We know there is an impact on lung function with increased exacerbations of asthma, pulmonary hypertension and other related impacts. We also know that the heart comes under significant pressure but we are only just learning how exposure to air pollution degrades our brain.
"Monitoring performances, as we do, and correlating them to air quality over time will give us all much more data and help us all understand the long term health impacts of poor air quality on our bodies and organs."
Through its air quality project, which will install monitoring devices on 1000 tracks around the world over the next five years, the IAAF will assist the global efforts of the WHO and UN Environment by gathering data, conducting studies and helping to raise awareness and educate the public on air quality, Radcliffe said.
"The sport of athletics is run through member associations based in 214 countries," Radcliffe said. "We are bigger than the United Nations. We want to use our know how, our voice and our athletes to bring this issue to the forefront of both policymakers and the public."
Note: In an interview with UN News following her presentation in Geneva, Radcliffe spoke more about her work as a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Clean Air Advocate and Ambassador for the IAAF. Listen to it below.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF