Air pollution threatens health of billions of people around the world, warns WHO

Pollutants found in the air have two origins: a minority comes from phenomena of natural origin such as Sahara sand winds or volcanic eruptions, but the majority comes from human activities. [D.Bond/Shutterstock]

Ninety-nine per cent of the global population lives in places that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality standards, threatening health and causing premature deaths, according to a new study published this week.

The report released on Monday (4 April) analysed air quality data from over 6,000 cities in 117 countries. Results showed that citizens living in all of these cities breathe air containing high levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to WHO’s scale. 

“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have seven million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution,” said Maria Neira, WHO director of the department of environment, climate change and health.

The updated version of the WHO air quality assessment includes ground-based measurements of annual average concentrations of NO2 and measurements of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres (PM10) or less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). 

Pollutants found in the air have two origins: a minority come from natural phenomena such as Sahara sand winds or volcanic eruptions, while most come from human activities such as transport, heating, agriculture or industry.

Citizens’ health at risk 

Breathing one or more of these pollutants has short-term consequences on health, such as irritative symptoms in the eyes, nose, and throat and long-term risks for the cardiovascular system or the respiratory system, such as lung cancer. 

Particulate matter, especially PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts. There is also emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases, the WHO report warns. 

Air quality is linked in particular to dependence on fossil fuels. Therefore Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, calls for “speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems”. 

“High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change underscore the pressing 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 exposed 

The report points out that low-income countries are more exposed to bad air quality due to a stronger exposure to particulate matter of PM10 or PM2.5 type. In only less than 1% of these countries, the air quality is in line with the WHO guidelines. 

People living in countries located in South-East Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean are among the more exposed in the world since these regions receive large quantities of desert dust particles. 

Regarding NO2, results showed that the exposure was more homogeneous between the 117 countries where air quality was monitored. 

Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 was worsened by air pollution

As science reveals more and more links between air pollution and the effects of COVID-19, the pressure is mounting on the European Commission to set high ambitions in the upcoming revision of the EU’s Air Quality Directive.

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 fine particulate matter, and 40,400 were attributed to chronic NO2 exposure. 

However, compared to 2005, the figures for premature deaths caused by polluted air have decreased by 33% in the EU. “If this rate of reducing premature deaths is maintained going forward, then the EU is expected to reach the Zero pollution action plan target“, said the EEA in a press release. 

On 12 May 2021, the Commission presented the Zero pollution action plan, which is part of the Green Deal, aiming to fight against pollution in the air, soil and water. The final goal is that by 2050, air, water and soil pollution be reduced to levels that are no longer seen as harmful to citizens’ health and natural ecosystems. 

To achieve this goal, the Commission said it would first reduce the number of premature death due to air pollution by 55% in 2030. 

“My Commission will put forward a cross-cutting strategy to protect citizens’ health from environmental degradation and pollution,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen back in May 2021. 

Increase air pollution surveillance 

Both the Commission and the WHO have made a series of recommendations to governments to tackle the issue of air pollution. “Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air,” said WHO’s Maria Neira. 

In addition to the reduction of fossil fuels, one of the key measures is for governments to increase monitoring of the air pollution in their countries. 

“Europe and, to some extent, North America remain the regions with the most comprehensive data on air quality. While in many low- and middle-income countries, PM2.5 measurements are still not available”, WHO’s report explains.

WHO experts also recommend that governments set up national air quality standards based on the latest WHO air quality guidelines. 

Ahead of Word health day on Thursday (7 April), WHO estimates that 13 million deaths each year are due to avoidable environmental causes in the world. 

1.8 million deaths are linked to air pollution worldwide, reports find

Two studies published in Lancet underlined the negative effects of air pollution, which resulted in 1.8 million excess deaths and nearly 2 million asthma cases among children worldwide. In Europe lowering levels of pollutants did not result in better health.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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