According to a new study published this week, 99 percent of the world’s population lives in places that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards, threatening health and causing premature deaths.
The report, released Monday (April 4), analyzed air quality data from over 6,000 cities in 117 countries. The results showed that residents of all these cities breathe air that, according to the WHO scale, contains high levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have seven million preventable deaths and countless years of preventable health lost due to air pollution,” said Maria Neira, WHO director for Environment, Climate Change and Health.
The updated version of the WHO air quality assessment includes ground-based measurements of annual average NO2 concentration and measurements of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns (PM10) or less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).
Pollutants found in the air come from two sources: a minority come from natural phenomena such as Saharan sand winds or volcanic eruptions, while most come from human activities such as transport, heating, agriculture or industry.
Citizens’ health at risk
Inhaling one or more of these pollutants has short-term health consequences such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and long-term cardiovascular or respiratory risks such as lung cancer.
Particulate matter, particularly PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory effects. There is also evidence that particulate matter affects other organs and causes other diseases, the WHO report warns.
Air quality is particularly related to dependence on fossil fuels. That’s why Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, is calling for “accelerating the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems.”
“High fossil fuel prices, energy security and the urgency to address the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change underscore the urgent need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels,” he said in a press release.
Low-income countries are more at risk
The report indicates that low-income countries are more at risk of poor air quality due to higher exposure to PM10 or PM2.5 particulate matter. In less than 1% of these countries, air quality meets WHO guidelines.
People living in countries in Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean are among the most exposed in the world, as these regions receive large amounts of desert dust particles.
Regarding NO2, the results showed that exposure was more homogeneous across the 117 countries where air quality was monitored.
EU Zero Pollution Action Plan
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), in 2019 in Europe, 307,000 premature deaths were attributed to chronic exposure to particulate matter and 40,400 to chronic NO2 exposure.
However, compared to 2005, the number of premature deaths from polluted air in the EU has fallen by 33%. “If this rate of reduction in premature deaths is maintained in the future, the EU is likely to achieve the zero pollution action plan target,” the EEA said in a press release.
On 12 May 2021, the Commission presented the Zero Pollution Action Plan, which is part of the Green Deal and aims to tackle air, soil and water pollution. The ultimate goal is that by 2050 Air, water and soil pollution are reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to citizens’ health and natural ecosystems.
To reach that goal, the commission said it would first reduce the number of premature deaths from air pollution by 55% by 2030.
“My Commission will present a cross-cutting strategy to protect the health of citizens from environmental destruction and pollution,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in May 2021.
Strengthen air pollution monitoring
Both the Commission and the WHO have made a number of recommendations to governments to address the problem of air pollution. “Yet too much investment is still being made in a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air,” said WHO’s Maria Neira.
Along with reducing fossil fuel use, one of the most important actions governments are taking is for governments to increase air pollution monitoring in their countries.
“Europe and parts of North America remain the regions with the most comprehensive air quality data. While in many low- and middle-income countries PM2.5 Measurements are still not available,” explains the WHO report.
WHO experts also recommend governments to set national air quality standards based on the latest WHO air quality guidelines.
Ahead of World Health Day on Thursday (April 7), the WHO estimates that preventable environmental causes account for 13 million deaths worldwide every year.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]