We all know air pollution is a major killer, but the latest research from the World Health Organization (WHO) is shocking. In 2012 alone, 7 million people died as a result of exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution, one in eight of total global deaths. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

The new WHO data reveals a stronger link between indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition, the WHO research explains, to the already proven link between air pollution and respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

In cities across the world, smog is becoming an alarming problem. In March this year, authorities in Paris – desperate to deal with dangerous levels of air pollution in the city – tried to restrict the number of cars going in and out. Even the Eiffel Tower was barely visible behind the white fog.

In homes, offices, schools, hospitals, public buildings and other buildings – where we spend so much of our time – the air that we breathe may be harming us. In offices, it can cause increases in sickness absenteeism and dent productivity as well.

A study by William Fisk from the Californian Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that better indoor air quality boosted worker productivity by 0.5% to 5%, leading to estimated savings of between $20 billion to $200 billion per year. In schools, teachers on sick leave can mean missed lessons and so on. The problem is far reaching.

Apart from government policy, there is a need for businesses to design products and services to meet the world’s ever growing social and environmental needs. We need to think of new ideas to deliver the most basic of human rights – clean air.

The cradle to cradle principles of the circular economy – which our company follows – places great importance on manufacturing things from non-toxic materials. This improves the chances of the indoor environment being healthier. But more than that, product designers can actually start thinking how they can add new functions to products that contribute to health and well-being, such as helping to reduce the indoor air pollution problem. This is where businesses can combine the pursuit of profit with doing good; smart business meeting unmet needs of huge proportions.

New technology combined with smart design also offers big opportunities. Take electric cars, for example, which if used on a large scale can do much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing to cleaner air.

Stefan Heck, a Stanford professor and McKinsey’s Matt Rogers, authors of Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century, claim that the pace of change in battery technology is very likely to make electric cars more affordable soon. These batteries already give the car greater speed and longer lasting power (200-250 miles instead of 50).

The last barrier, they argue, is the cost of the battery, which roughly doubles the price of the car. But, they believe the price shift is close: “And at that point, given the performance benefits, the environmental benefits, the fact that the car is completely quiet, that you accelerate faster, that you consume no fuel when you’re stopped at a street light, why not go electric?”

Smart businesses are betting on these new market needs and in so doing helping to make life better for countless millions across the globe.

Author: Alexander Collot d’Escury is Chief Executive Officer of Desso Holding.

Image: A hazy night in Shanghai’s financial district. REUTERS/Aly Song